SOMETIME SOON--say, around Spring 2004, when George W. Bush begins spending his money--whoever becomes the Democratic nominee may have second thoughts about his attendance at the NARAL dinner in Washington on January 21, 2003. Or at least he may wish that cameras hadn't been present, for the images that emerged were not helpful. There they stood, the six hopefuls, like spindly schoolboys, summoned into the principal's office to be brought into line: into the party line, which they spouted with reverence.
As Ryan Lizza wrote in the New Republic, there was never a hint of a Sister Souljah eruption. Dick Gephardt begged mercy for previous sins. After the six had delivered their speeches, they sat while Kate Michelman, who had summoned them, gave them their orders: She expects from them no less than a full-throttle filibuster every time George W. Bush names to the federal bench a judge that does not meet her strict standards of purity. Did any of the senators sitting there wince when she said this? Did they think that they might today be in the minority because they had refused to vote on Bush judges? Did they consider what the country might think if they tied up the Senate, perhaps in wartime, to thwart abortion restrictions that most voters favor? But what will happen if she snaps her fingers, and they do not come running? Will they be called once again to the principal's office? Will they be kept after school?
So when the six Democratic presidential candidates spoke before a core Democratic interest group, NARAL Pro-Choice America, Tuesday night, one question that hung in the air of the Omni Shoreham ballroom was, which Democrat would "Sister Souljah" NARAL? The answer was nobody. Prior to the event there was some whispering that Dick Gephardt might try to burnish his general election bona fides by criticizing partial-birth abortion, but it didn't happen. As an aide to one candidate explained, the NARAL event was "box-checking." There remains an iron triangle of Democratic constituencies--blacks, labor, pro-choice women--whom every candidate must appease during the primaries. Tuesday night, the six Democrats dutifully checked the abortion box.