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Cokie and Steven V. Roberts: Thank God for the nuns

By Cokie Roberts and Steven V. Roberts

“Thank God for the Catholic nuns,” says Rep. Nancy Pelosi.

In an interview with The Washington Post, the House Democratic leader stressed that many nuns are strong supporters of Obamacare and are “speaking out” against Republican attempts to gut the measure. Yet, as believing Catholics, they generally take pro-life positions on abortion.

“Do we subject them to a test and say, ‘Before you speak out on this bill, we want to know where you are on this, that and the other thing’?” Pelosi asked. “No. No.”

Pelosi makes an important point. It would be stunningly suicidal for Democrats to ostracize voters like the nuns, who ardently back the party’s core principles of economic and social justice but disagree on one issue: abortion rights.

“I grew up Nancy D’Alesandro in Baltimore, Maryland; in Little Italy; in a very devout Catholic family — fiercely patriotic, proud of our town and our heritage, and staunchly Democratic,” she told the Post. “Most of those people — my family, extended family — are not pro-choice. You think I’m kicking them out of the Democratic Party?”

This issue erupted recently when Tom Perez, the new chairman of the Democratic Party, and Sen. Bernie Sanders backed Heath Mello, a candidate for mayor of Omaha, Nebraska, with a history of pro-life positions. The pro-choice professionals went nuts, with Ilyse Hogue of NARAL Pro-Choice America saying their decision “is not only disappointing, it is politically stupid.”

Perez immediately caved, saying “every Democrat” should be pro-choice and the issue was “not negotiable.” That idiocy evoked another backlash, and Perez wobbled again, with a spokesman stating, “Tom doesn’t believe in litmus tests.”

Here’s the bottom line: Hogue has it exactly wrong. The “politically stupid” course for Democrats would be to impose a rigid orthodoxy on a highly emotional and complicated issue. The public debate on abortion has always been dominated by purists on both sides, demanding unwavering loyalty to unmovable positions. But most Americans are in the middle, searching for a reasonable compromise that reconciles moral values with practical policies.

Gallup finds that only 29 percent want abortion to be legal under “any circumstances,” with 19 percent wanting it banned in all cases. Fully 50 percent favor keeping it legal but only under “certain circumstances.” A Pew study gave voters four choices, and 58 percent of respondents picked a moderate option.

The partisan breakdown reinforces Pelosi’s point. One out of four Democrats in the Pew study favor restricting abortion in all or most cases. That rises to one out of three among moderate and conservative Democrats, and one out of two among Hispanics — a key target for the party’s future. Alienating those voters over social issues helped sink Hillary Clinton, Pelosi insists.

“You know what?” she told the Post. “That’s why Donald Trump is president of the United States — the evangelicals and the Catholics, anti-marriage equality, anti-choice.”

Nancy D’Alesandro from Little Italy knows what she’s talking about. Democrats trapped in their elitist bubbles cannot win back power by listening to the absolutists who demand total fealty on the abortion issue.

Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat who manages to survive in West Virginia, told The Hill: “I’m pro-life. … Saying you have to fit in one silo to be in the party — that doesn’t make any sense to me or any West Virginia Democrat.”

It also makes no sense to Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Texas Democrat representing a heavily Hispanic district along the Mexican border. He told The Hill: “When you want to subtract and start using a purity test, that’s not good for the party. So you grow a majority by adding, and not subtracting, pro-life Democrats.”

Sen. Joe Donnelly, a pro-life Democrat facing a tough re-election fight in Indiana, calls a purity test “very, very short-sighted.” In an interview with the Huffington Post, he explained: “We ought to be able to include everyone, as opposed to saying, ‘No, we don’t want these folks, even though they fight with us on jobs, even though they fight with us for economic rights, even though they fight with us on health care.’”

Democrats love to berate Republicans for kowtowing to the hardliners in the tea party and the Freedom Caucus. “We are so much more intelligent and open-minded,” they boast. Except when it comes to abortion. Then they’re ready to burn heretics at the stake.

That’s a profound mistake. Democrats must embrace inclusion, not exclusion. Folks who agree with you most of the time should be welcomed, not exiled. Pelosi’s right: “Thank God for the nuns.”

Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at stevecokie@gmail.com.

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