The unemployment rate is still 7.8 percent, and the gross domestic product is growing at a sluggish 2 percent. Young people graduating college can’t find jobs and are living in their parents’ houses. Economies in Europe and Asia are weakening, suggesting additional problems in the year ahead for the U.S. economy.
And Democratic candidates, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the House Majority PAC, a super PAC dedicated to electing Democrats to the House, are running ads on abortion, Planned Parenthood funding and stem cell research.
For the past couple of months, Democratic strategists have been trying to prosecute a case against the Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) budget and Medicare, charging that Mitt Romney and GOP Congressional candidates support tax cuts for the rich at the expense of the poor and programs that the middle class has come to depend on.
To a large extent, voters haven’t bought the Democratic message, which is why the party won’t make significant gains in the House. It is also why President Barack Obama is in a very tight race for re-election.
To reach swing voters, many Democratic strategists have returned to one of the party’s reliable themes: Republicans want to stop women from having access to legal abortion and to destroy Planned Parenthood, and they are so extreme that they oppose stem cell research that could save lives or help the seriously ill.
These kinds of ads have been run by Kathy Boockvar (D) against Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R-Pa,), former Rep. Dan Maffei (D) against Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle (R-N.Y.) and Julian Schreibman (D) against Rep. Chris Gibson (R-N.Y.).
They have also been run by the DCCC against Rep. Scott Tipton (R-Colo.), Washington open-seat hopeful John Koster (R), Rep. Frank Guinta (R-N.H.), and Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.).
In Texas, the House Majority PAC is running a TV spot against freshman GOP Rep. Francisco “Quico” Canseco that asserts that he supports the “personhood bill,” which prevents in vitro fertilization and will deny some people the ability to have a child. “Congressman Canseco thinks he can decide who can have a baby and who can’t,” a young woman says in the spot.
In Colorado, a House Majority PAC 60-second spot against Coffman is particularly noteworthy and, yes, controversial. It features a young man who, talking to camera, says that next year he will be “in a car accident” and will be “paralyzed for the rest of his life.” Next, a woman says “in 20 years, I’ll have Alzheimer’s,” and then a child says that “next week” her parents are going to find out she has diabetes.
The ad goes on to assert that Coffman opposes stem cell research. “Why would Mr. Coffman bet my life that he knows best?” the woman asks. “How come he gets to decide who lives and who dies?” the child asks later in the spot.
The House Majority PAC spots are either touching and brilliant or despicable and desperate. You decide. In any case, they open the door to right-to-life groups countering with equally emotional and manipulative ads that feature children saying how happy they are that they weren’t aborted.
Of course, it isn’t only in House races that Democrats are using abortion and other cultural issues. In Northern Virginia, abortion is featured prominently in TV ads supporting Obama and Democratic Senate candidate Tim Kaine.
It wasn’t that long ago — four years to be exact — that Democrats were rolling their eyes over conservatives’ use of those same kinds of issues, insisting that with the financial crisis and slowing economy Republicans were wasting their time dwelling on abortion and gay marriage.
As the Los Angeles Times editorialized on Sept. 18, 2008: “A raft of issues will confront the next president: the faltering economy, Iraq, Afghanistan, the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea, a resurgent Russia, gaps in health insurance, energy policy and climate change. Especially after this week’s turmoil in the financial markets, it’s bizarre to suggest that this election should turn on abortion, same-sex marriage or the relationship between church and state.”
While Democrats have jumped all over social issues, some Republicans have aided and abetted Democrats in raising the themes and portraying the Republican Party as being extreme.
Republican Senate candidates Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana, who looked like easy winners, have proved to be so insensitive and politically inept that they have helped interject rape and social issues into their own campaigns as well as the campaigns of others.
Akin and Mourdock are both pro-life, and that isn’t a liability in Missouri and Indiana. But sounding unsympathetic to victims of rape is another story, and whatever their true feelings, both Republicans sounded incredibly ill-informed and even cruel.
And then there is Coffman, the Colorado Republican whom I have already mentioned as a target of attacks on abortion. Earlier this year, Coffman said that in Obama’s heart, he “is not an American, He’s not an American.”
Abortion is an important issue to many. The same holds for stem cell research and same-sex marriage. They were always going to have some role in the 2012 elections. But with choices on taxes, spending, the budget deficit and entitlements staring the electorate in the face, it’s interesting that so many Democratic ads are focusing on cultural issues and so many Republicans are fumbling around with them.
Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.