Do Dems Ban "Pro-Life" Convention Speakers?

The subject of whether Democrats “ban pro-life speakers” at their conventions is going around again. This originated after anti-choice Pennsylvania Governor Casey was not allowed to address the 1992 Democratic National Convention because he refused to endorse then-Governor Clinton for President. No More Mister Nice Blog has a great post on the subject, and he uses the magic words: “conventional wisdom.” Kevin Drum has recently written about it, as have Atrios and Digby.

It so happens that the myth that “Democrats don’t allow pro-life speakers at their conventions” came up at a dinner party at the home of some strongly Christian friends just before last year’s election. These friends tend to be Democratic voters, but had been getting handouts and magazines at their church, designed to persuade them to vote Republican.

One thing my friends had heard repeatedly was particularly influential. They were saying they were likely to vote for Bush because “Democrats don’t allow pro-life people to speak at their conventions.” I also hear this repeated all the time, and it has become “conventional wisdom.” You probably know that the Republicans usually add that Republicans are the party of the “big tent.” In fact, you probably hear this repeated word-for-word, because that’s how these things work.

The “Democrats don’t allow” and “Republicans are party of big tent” seems to be a powerful, influential combination for persuading potential voters. But I didn’t realize just how powerful an effect these words had on people until that dinner party.

So I did some research… Here is the record:

Pro-Life Democrats speaking at the 2004 convention:

Two members of Democrats for Life were among speakers at the party’s convention. Rep. Jim Turner of Texas was speaking in the context of his role as ranking minority member of the Homeland Security Committee. Rep. Jim Langevin of Rhode Island introduced Ron Reagan [also “pro-life”], who spoke in favor of embryonic stem-cell research.

2000 Convention: The Catholic Herald:

“Eight years after he was denied a forum at the Democratic convention, the late Pennsylvania Governor Robert P. Casey was given a few moments in the national spotlight. On the closing day of the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, the governors two sons got the chance to make their fathers points about the sanctity of life.

[. . .] With just a few sentences each, the brothers, two of eight siblings, described their father as “a proud, pro-life Democrat” who “believed every life, born and unborn is sacred. That’s why he was a Democrat,” said Robert Casey Jr.

Invocation by Cardinal Roger Mahony, Archbishop of Los Angeles, At the Democratic National Convention, Los Angeles, Monday, August 14, 2000: (Other Catholic archbishops declined invitations to speak in 1984, 1992, and 1996.)

“I welcome you to the “City of Angels” with all its vibrant religious, ethnic, and racial diversity. I come to this great convening out of respect for our nation’s democratic traditions. I come as a pastor, not a politician; an advocate of values, not candidates.

[. . .] As you gathered your people into the land that was promised to them, you called them to heed your voice and follow your commandments. These commandments are at once simple and profound: To love God above all else and to love our neighbor as ourselves. We have been called to “choose life” and to “serve the least of these.”

[. . .] In the span of just three weeks, our nation’s major political parties will have gathered at their conventions to select their candidates for the upcoming presidential campaign. We pray tonight that your Spirit will inspire all candidates, regardless of party, to embody in their words, actions, and policies values that protect all human life, establish peace, promote justice, and uphold the common good. For it is in you, O God, that we trust.

In You, O God, we trust that you will keep us ever committed to protect the life and well-being of all people but especially unborn children, the sick and the elderly, those on skid row and those on death row.

[. . .] We make our prayer in your name.

Amen.

1996 Democratic Convention, Congressman Tony Hall of Ohio:

“Mr. Chairman and fellow Democrats, I have the high honor of speaking to you today about an issue that’s very dear to my heart, the needs of the vulnerable in our nation, the poor, the sick, the elderly, the children, and the unborn. The moral test of government, Hubert Humphrey said, is how that government treats those that are in the dawn of life, the children, those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly, and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick.

[. . .] I’m a pro-life Democrat. I’m one of about 40 Democrats in the Congress. And many of us have felt left out by our party’s position on abortion for many years. But this year is different. For the first time, the Democratic Party has included in our Platform a conscience clause on this divisive issue. It says, “the Democratic Party therefore recognizes that individual members have a right to abide by their conscience on this difficult issue and are welcome participants at every level of the party.” The Democratic Party is indeed the party of true inclusions. And it is the party where every American can feel welcome and at home. We Democrats believe that our government and our whole society will be judged on how we treat the least of these among us. So we renew our pledge to be a voice for the voiceless and we reaffirm our commitment to the principle that public service is not an end in itself but rather a means to serve others. With God’s help, let us make the United States the compassionate and tolerant nation it was established to be. Thank you very much.”

So the fact is that the Democratic Party conventions HAVE had so-called “pro-life” speakers, including the 2000 invocation by a Catholic Archbishop (who is obviously against abortion) talking about protecting “unborn children.” And the fact remains that Gov.Casey did refuse to endorse the nominee that year. Add to this that his kids were allowed to give a “pro-life” speech at the next convention. Democrats simply do NOT “ban pro-life speakers.” But they DO ban speakers who refuse to endorse the nominee.

As my dinner-party friends can testify, the story carries great weight in persuading people to not support Democrats, by convincing them that Democrats are elitists who ban “pro-life” speakers – banning people who are like them – while Republicans are inclusive “big tent” people – embracing people who are like them. So it is greatly to the benefit of the Republicans that the lie continue to circulate. Repetition is the key to making people believe things. This is an “urban myth” that is useful and powerful so it continues to be repeated.

This is another example of the use of repetition of simple phrases to create “conventional wisdom” or what we call “truisms.” Such conventional wisdoms include phrases like “Social Security is going broke,” “He gassed his own people” and “Children trapped in failing public schools.”

Finally, let me remind you of the Seeing the Forest rule: when Republicans accuse others it probably means it is something they are doing. From a pre-convention Washington Times (a pro-Republican newspaper) story,

More than half the Republicans in the House have signed a formal complaint to President Bush about the failure to give prominent conservative, pro-life party members even one prime-time speaking role at the Republican National Convention.

(All emphasis in the quotes above was added.)

Update – Paul Waldman adds, “Just a couple more – David Bonior (then House Whip) and Harry Reid have both spoken at a few.”