The “big news” when I woke up today was about Biden signing an executive order to protect abortion access. I rolled my eyes and said to myself, “Self, let’s see what kind of weak tea the White House is serving up today.” After all, Biden has used his Catholicism as an excuse for his anti-Choice Senate career and his miserable votes against women’s healthcare. He hasn’t changed, just recognized the political necessity of seeming to have changed. As Axios pointed out this morning Biden is trying to seem like he’s leading because he’s “faced intense pressure from his own party to act more aggressively on abortion.” The patheticness of the situation is that Biden’s executive order “will not restore access to abortion in the states that have already banned or restricted the procedure, [but] it could enhance the administration's efforts to help people know what rights they do have.
To dress their pig up a little, the White House p.r. people have been out all day telling the media that the executive order will safeguard “access to reproductive health care services, including abortion and contraception,” whatever bullshit that’s supposed to mean to women (and raped 10 year old girls) in Florida, Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, Arizona, Ohio, Missouri, Utah, Oklahoma, South Carolina, both Dakotas, Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Louisiana and Idaho. Biden has tried to pass the responsibility on to a deadlocked Congress where nothing fundamental can change… unless it’s reactionary change. Axios lists 5 aspects of Biden’s too little, too late executive order:
Biden will also direct the Department of Health and Human Services to take additional action to protect access to abortion medication, emergency medical care and contraception, the White House said.
The order will also seek to address concerns over patient privacy and digital surveillance, including taking steps to protect consumers’ privacy when seeking information about reproductive health care services.
The administration will also convene volunteer lawyers to "encourage robust legal representation of patients, providers, and third parties lawfully seeking or offering reproductive health care services throughout the country." That representation could include helping to protect a patient's right to travel to another state for an abortion.
HHS will also consider actions to protect sensitive information related to reproductive health care, the White House said.
"The guidance helps ensure doctors and other medical providers and health plans know that, with limited exceptions, they are not required— and in many cases, are not permitted— to disclose patients’ private information, including to law enforcement," per the White House.
Branko Marcetic was more clear-eyed and less kind about the Biden approach. “Observers of American politics,” he wrote, “should by now know the Democratic Party is a feckless, corrupt institution incapable of meeting the challenges of our time— congenitally averse to fighting for its principles, to the extent that it actually has any. But even the most jaded cynics have to be shocked at just how useless the party’s response has been to the Right’s most recent assault on abortion rights.”
He castigated Biden for ruling out doing anything that would preserve the right to Choice— like expanding the number of judges on the court. “He and his team fret that this ‘would be politically polarizing’ ahead of the midterms and ‘undermine public trust in institutions like the Supreme Court’— the implication being that the court’s attack on abortion rights somehow did neither of those.” There is virtually NO public trust in the Supreme Court except from anti-Choice conservatives. A strong president would have acted months ago when the Alito memo leaked. But that isn’t Joe Biden.
As calls to eliminate the Senate filibuster and pass Roe into law grew louder, the Biden administration ruled that out too, dispatching Vice President Kamala Harris to CNN to deliver the bad news. “What do you say to Democratic voters who argue, ‘Wait a minute, we worked really hard to elect a Democratic president and vice president, a Democrat-led House, a Democrat-led Senate— do it now’?” asked Dana Bash.
“But do what now? What now?” replied Harris, who went on to insist the votes weren’t there to eliminate the filibuster and ruled out using the presidential bully pulpit to get them.
Ocasio-Cortez and others had suggested a creative move: putting abortion clinics on federal lands in states where it was illegal. Was that something the administration might consider? “It’s not right now what we are discussing,” said Harris. Elsewhere, administration officials expressed worry that taking such a step would open those seeking abortions to prosecution or violate the Hyde Amendment, which bars using federal money to fund abortions. (On the last point, it was up to, once more, Ocasio-Cortez to explain why that wasn’t the case.)
Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) member Representative Cori Bush (D-MO) and others have called on Biden to declare a public health emergency as a result of Roe being overturned, something that could open the way to paying patients’ travel expenses. So far, the administration hasn’t done anything of the sort, with one White House advisor warning that if it took that step, “It’s very possible that the next incumbent of the Oval Office would declare an emergency for the life of fetuses,” which was “exactly the kind of politicization of public health that we really need to avoid.” In other words, yet more action stymied by a misguided, conservative obsession with preserving norms and institutions.
A slew of such novel ideas has now been suggested by individual members of the party. What’s notable is the near-total absence of an echo from the White House, even though practically the entire globe has known for two whole months Roe would be overturned.
Biden’s speech reacting to the long-time-coming decision was light on specifics, beyond pledging to maintain access to contraception and abortion pills. He also made a point of urging those infuriated by the decision to “keep all protests peaceful” and with “no intimidation,” a pointless warning since, unlike the increasingly violent antiabortion movement, pro-choice protesters are already overwhelmingly peaceful. From the sound of it, Harris’s “coalition call” on reproductive rights was similarly light on specific, concrete federal actions.
Even the Democrats’ opposition is shocked by their ineptitude. “If I were the libs, I would be putting forward a flurry of legislation like making birth control free and widely available,” a GOP aide told Julia Ioffe:
If you say it’s not widely enough available, go after that, cover the gaps. Don’t go for the really big stuff, just split the GOP conference as much as you can, force people to vote. If the goal is really protecting women or advancing legislation that could actually pass, then take every potential approach you can.
But observations of the party’s uselessness extend beyond just Republican operatives and the left-wing carpers at Jacobin. “What the fuck are we doing?” one exasperated Democratic lobbyist told Ioffe, aptly summarizing a spreading mood. Or just look at the words popping up in headlines describing Democrats’ responses to their leadership’s inaction: “frustration”; “exasperation”; “anger.”
The wave of criticism seems to have had an effect, as only one day after sending Harris to insist to the nation that the filibuster wasn’t going anywhere, the president undercut her by finally publicly calling for an exception to the rule for abortion bills. Whether he’ll follow through remains to be seen.
…Meanwhile, at the same time they’ve failed to meet the moment in terms of concrete action, the party has stepped in it over and over again with a series of tone-deaf symbolic gestures.
At the same time furious demonstrators gathered outside the Supreme Court to protest the gutting of Roe, House Democrats gathered on the Capitol steps across the street to sing “God Bless America” over the House’s passage of a gun control bill even as lawmakers like Ocasio-Cortez joined the protesters, for which the Democrats were excoriated by even usually pro-Democratic voices in the media.
“It’s a little anticlimactic, I think we all expected this,” said Representative James Clyburn (D-SC), the third-highest ranking Democrat in the House. Pelosi reacted to the decision by reading a verse by an Israeli poet about patriotism in the face of disappointment in one’s country, before sending out a fundraising email.
To make matters worse, as the news about Roe roiled the country, news leaked that Biden is preparing to nominate a Republican antiabortion lawyer for a lifetime appointment as a federal judge, reportedly as part of a deal with Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) that would allow Biden to confirm two US attorneys in Kentucky, both of which are temporary positions.
It’s the latest in Biden’s long history of cutting lopsided, outrage-inducing deals with the Republican mastermind, and it comes not long after top Democrats like Clyburn and Pelosi threw their support behind a scandal-plagued, antiabortion incumbent in Texas instead of his progressive challenger. (It also comes just a few years after the party establishment used Senator Bernie Sanders’s (I-VT) endorsement of a mayoral candidate dishonestly portrayed as having an antiabortion record to attack him as out of touch with the party’s values as he prepared his presidential run.)
This Democratic failure runs deep. The road to the overturning of Roe v. Wade was paved by decades’ worth of Democrats proving unable and unwilling to counter a concerted, well-planned campaign by the Right to take over the Supreme Court— some of the same Democrats, in fact, who are now impotently hectoring Americans to vote for them in four months’ time.
First among them is Joe Biden, long known as a prominent antiabortion Democrat who spent his career clashing with women’s groups and working to move the party in a more conservative direction. Though Biden now claims it was Donald Trump’s three Supreme Court picks “who were the core” of the court’s recent jettisoning of Roe, the reality is that while serving on the Senate Judiciary Committee, including eight years as chairman, Biden played a key role in facilitating the GOP takeover of the institution, most famously by shielding Clarence Thomas from sexual harassment allegations in his confirmation hearing. He was also a backer of the very Hyde Amendment his administration now says prevents it from putting abortion clinics on federal land.
But of course, the issue is bigger than just Biden. There’s a lot of well-deserved scorn being directed right now toward the elite liberal lawyers and commentators who falsely assured the public Trump’s Supreme Court picks were dispassionate jurists who would never overturn Roe. And we can’t forget Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s fateful refusal to retire, a product of the same hokey faith in institutions that led Justice Stephen Breyer to declare the court was made up of open-minded legal minds calling balls and strikes, just a year before declaring it wasn’t.
The question is whether any of this will matter. Viewed externally, the past week, to say nothing of the past few decades, has appeared as an obviously damning indictment of the Democratic establishment, which has cynically leaned on the abortion issue over and over again to discipline its base and maintain its hold on the party but in reality proven utterly incapable of actually defending reproductive rights. Whether the party’s most reliable supporters will see it that way is another story. This November, we may well find out.