In Defense of NARAL

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I’m pretty sure I’ve posted something similar before, but in light of this misguided swipe at NARAL today over at Daily Kos, it seems time for another go. Kos isn’t happy because the abortion-rights organization would dare endorse a pro-choice Republican, Lincoln Chaffee of Rhode Island, over a pro-life Democrat, Jim Langevin (who eventually dropped out of the race). Kos sees this as precisely the wrong strategy, and argues that NARAL should stick with Democrats come hell-or-highwater: “[T]urning the Senate Democratic is far more beneficial for their issue (women rights) than anything the Republicans can muster.” Well, no. That’s not necessarily true.

A quick finger experiment. Let’s pretend, for the sake of argument, that it’s Chaffee (pro-choice R) vs. Langevin (pro-life D) in a Rhode Island Senate race, and that NARAL’s endorsement makes a shred of difference. Here are the scenarios that pro-choice advocates face face:

1) Republicans keep the Senate in 2006 and Chaffee gets elected. Well, that’s bad news. But notice, whenever the Republicans slap down some bit of legislation restricting abortion rights, Chaffee will be voting against it (remember, he votes pro-choice 100 percent of the time. 100 percent!).

2) Republicans keep the Senate in 2006 and Langevin gets elected. Worse news. Republicans are still in charge, but now whenever they slap down abortion restrictions, Langevin will likely vote for them, giving pro-life legislation one extra vote and making it more likely to pass. Clearly outcome #2 is worse for NARAL than #1. But then we have…

3) Democrats retake the Senate and Chaffee gets elected. Hooray! Now whenever Democrats want to push through some legislation expanding abortion rights, Chaffee votes for it, making it more likely to pass. Which is still better, from NARAL’s perspective, than…

4) Democrats retake the Senate and Langevin gets elected. This scenario is worse than 3, since that legislation expanding abortion rights suddenly becomes harder to pass—at the very least, you’ll have to do Langevin some favor elsewhere to get him to vote for it. But odds are, he won’t vote for it!

So NARAL’s preferences here are ranked: 3, 4, 1, 2. Endorsing Chaffee, then, is a pretty optimal choice—it makes either 3 or 1 more likely, rather than 4 or 2. The wild card here, of course, is the scenario in which control of the Senate actually hinges on who wins in this race, Chaffee or Langevin—in which case, the choice would be between outcome #1 and #4. But the probability of that seems pretty small, all things considered. So, yes, it makes sense for NARAL to endorse the pro-choice Republican over the pro-life Democrat. Meanwhile, in light of various liberal intellectuals getting ready to throw abortion rights overboard in order to win more elections, NARAL certainly has every reason to worry that it needs to hold the party’s feet to the fire. Traditionally, interest groups that get too cozy and complacent with one particular party—see, for example, unions with the Democratic Party, or evangelicals with the Republicans—get taken advantage of pretty easily.

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