On Friday evening, when the Democratic Party’s primary candidates convened for another interminable showdown. Once moderators got the usual questions about socialism and Medicare for All out of the way they decided, bravely, to breach new ground. They asked former vice-president Joe Biden if he’d apply a basic litmus test to potential Supreme Court nominees, focused narrowly on their support for abortion rights. Biden agreed that he would, and almost seemed to take credit for legal abortion itself in a typically meandering answer. Senators Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Amy Klobuchar were more succinct: Yes, abortion would be a litmus test for their nominees.
Superficially, it shouldn’t be a surprise that politicians who belong to a party with legal abortion rights in its platform would make the issue a non-negotiable standard for whomever they nominate to the Supreme Court. Each candidate onstage is openly pro-choice. But that’s not a good reason to ignore abortion at the debates — and not just because the Supreme Court is dominated by anti-abortion conservatives. Biden’s rambling was enlightening, even if by accident. For a party that claims to champion choice, Democrats have been flexible with their core principles when it suits them.
In his answer, Biden, who once supported the Hyde Amendment’s ban on the use of public funds for abortion, tried to explain what exactly he meant when he’d criticized “litmus tests” in the past. The charge that left-wing candidates are overly prone either to litmus or purity tests is common among moderates, including Biden. Implied by this accusation is the belief that activists or politicians who insist on fealty to policies like Medicare for All will cost the party elections. The American people have little patience for such divisiveness, or so the argument often goes.
But the litmus-test criticism has always been bizarre. Distilled, it’s an attack on conviction, which is a trait most politicians like to say they possess. The basic presence of a Democratic party platform suggests that it as an institution has agreed-upon litmus tests of its own. Abortion rights are in theory one of the party’s basic principles, a standard it will not compromise. Except that it does, with disastrous results. Consider Dan Lipinski and Henry Cuellar, two conservative Democrats who oppose abortion: The party didn’t just welcome them into the fold, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is defending them against challenges from pro-choice women to their left. Abortion matters, until suddenly it doesn’t. Women have a sacrosanct right to the control of their own bodies, until a conservative Democrat faces a primary challenge.
The GOP doesn’t suffer from such confused messaging, and its base responds passionately to the party’s clarity. Democrats have sacrificed a similar advantage in service of a dubious electoral theory, which is that voters in certain areas simply won’t stomach pro-choice candidates. This is not universally true even in red-state districts and it is certainly not true in a general election, given that most Americans still support legal abortion in most or all cases. Candidates ought to be pressed not just on the issue of abortion, but on its merits as a litmus test, just as moderators did tonight. Any Democrat who wants to be president should have an unequivocal and clear answer prepared.