Abortion vote raises question: Do Democrats know how to lead?

For a party that controls the legislative calendar, there are five types of votes, each with a different purpose and intended outcome. One type aims to achieve a political goal, whether galvanizing support for one’s cause or members, or splintering support within an opposing cause or members. The policy being pushed is largely irrelevant. All that matters are the political repercussions. By holding this vote, is the party in power stronger, and/or is the opposition party weaker?

A second type of vote seeks to achieve a policy goal, regardless of the immediate political consequences. In the short term, the majority party might pay a price. But longer term, the party hopes the law will be viewed favorably by a majority of the population, while forcing the opposing party to either change their views, or else fight a fruitless and politically costly battle to undo the law. The Affordable Care Act is a prime example.

A third type of vote aims to achieve political and policy goals simultaneously. Obviously, this is a much narrower needle to thread. But Republicans arguably succeeded in the aftermath of 9/11, when they parlayed President George W. Bush’s sky-high popularity into a mandate to act decisively and swiftly in the United States’ newly minted War on Terrorism.

Of course, this is not about whether such policies stand the test of time. All that matters is a swift and complete victory in a two-front battle against political and policy opponents. Republicans accomplished the rare feet of gaining congressional seats in the first midterm elections of Bush’s presidency, in part, because a majority of voters believed — real or imagined — that the GOP was better equipped to keep the nation safe. Republicans’ legislative actions in late 2001 and in 2002 produced this favorable result.

The fourth kind of vote is when you achieve nothing politically or policy wise. Re-naming a post office or declaring “Crispy Bacon Day.” You get the idea.

On Wednesday, America witnessed the fifth and rarest kind of vote, in which the majority party simultaneously undercuts its political and policy aims. Net-negative results include diminishing the majority party’s clout and brand by driving a wedge within its ranks, which in turn drives a wedge within the cause it is trying to advance.

Wednesday shouldn’t have happened. Legislative leaders reach the highest levels of the Washington food chain because they know how to wield power efficiently and effectively. They understand how to apply political and/or policy pressures to gain political and/or policy ground.

The Senate Democratic leadership failed on two fronts. They pushed for a vote that had no chance of passing and which was destined to bring more discomfort to their side rather than to their opponents. They are also no closer to protecting female bodily autonomy, and arguably this miscalculation has (for now) stalled the advance of a re-energized pro-choice movement.

Pro-choice senators can still flip the script. They can introduce legislation that, at a minimum, restores their political upper-hand. Test the limits of GOP support for zygotes over women. Challenge the GOP to go on the record as favoring prison sentences for women. Over the question of fetuses versus raped girls, force Republicans to side with fetuses.

There are dozens and dozens of ways to splinter a minority party on an issue where they have relatively little national support, while simultaneously achieving some (maybe not yet “all”) majority-party policy aims.

Wednesday’s vote was an unusual display of political and policy self-immolation.

It reinforces a growing narrative that a Democratic-led federal government cannot lead, even on an issue supported by a vast majority of the country. There is still time to fix this. But it requires an entirely different level of thinking.

B.J. Rudell is a longtime political strategist, former associate director for Duke University’s Center for Politics, and recent North Carolina Democratic Party operative. In a career encompassing stints on Capitol Hill, on presidential campaigns, in a newsroom, in classrooms, and for a consulting firm, he has authored three books and has shared political insights across all media platforms, including for CNN and Fox News.

Tags abortion politics abortion rights Chuck Schumer Democratic majority Democratic Party George W. Bush Leadership Politics Senate Democratic leadership Senate Democrats

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