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Culture Q&A

Don’t rock the boat ... just yet

Strategy and timing are key ingredients for winning pro-life victories

Illustration by Bram Vanhaeren

Carol Tobias is president of the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC). Here are edited excerpts of our conversation shortly before last month’s March for Life in Washington, D.C.

What’s your earliest memory of any pro-life activity? 

My mom was the Political Action Committee Director for North Dakota Right to Life. She sent questionnaires to state legislative candidates. I remember having all those questionnaires spread out on the table as she was trying to organize them. And in 1972 North Dakota had a statewide referendum on abortion: 78 percent of the voters opposed the pro-abortion measure. 

You were 12 then. Had you learned that people are killing babies?

It was about that time. Mom talked about conversations she had with local ministers. I asked questions, and she told me what was happening.

Did that startle you?

I was shocked, and questioning: How could anyone even consider killing an unborn baby?

At what age do you think kids should learn about this?

At a young age they can learn about the beauty of life: Let them see pictures of babies in the womb, beautiful photography. I wouldn’t put an age on learning about abortion, because children differ in how they can handle the information—but let them gradually know what’s happening to these babies. 

At age 19 you were working 9 to 5 as a bookkeeper and volunteering at the local Right to Life chapter?  

I got to know people active at the state level. They asked if I’d move to Bismarck to run the state organization. I jumped at the chance, at the opportunity to spend my time in a very worthwhile movement. 

In 1981 you went to Washington as the NRLC’s political director? Was that a decade of optimism? 

The pro-life movement was instrumental in helping Ronald Reagan win the White House. Republicans elected many pro-life senators. 

At the end of the decade Operation Rescue (OR) became the highly publicized face of the movement. Was that helpful or harmful? 

It gave an outlet for people who weren’t happy making phone calls and lobbying legislators. I’d tend to say it was probably more harmful because the country at that time maybe wasn’t really open to those kinds of activities, sit-ins, whatever.

Did OR lead to killing more babies rather than fewer?

I know some OR people. Their hearts were so sincere that I am very reluctant to put that kind of connotation on it. But if those efforts helped us lose some elections, and then we got in one or two more bad justices who have been on the court now for 20 years, that might’ve extended the battle. Until we get more people in agreement with us, we need to be really careful that we’re not pushing them away into thinking we’re the crazy ones. 

How extensive within the movement was the debate between the all-or-nothing folks ­(never support any proposal that leaves some babies unprotected) and the all-or-something folks?

There was a lot of frustration and anger. Some thought people were compromising too much. Others thought: If you do an all-or-nothing, you’re going to get nothing, and how does that help the babies? 

What are the major similarities and differences between the pro-life movements of 1990 and 2020?

We definitely have more young people. They are seeing the unborn baby. And the social media aspect: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. The pro-life message is getting out to people in so many different ways. 

How important is the development of ultrasound in leading more people to call themselves pro-life? 

That is a very large part of it. Women are seeing their babies. You can’t pass them off as just a blob of cells. Legislation has been a very good educational tool. People are learning with the partial-birth abortion ban that babies later in the pregnancy were being delivered, then stabbed in the back of the head with scissors. A substantial part of the country still believed abortion was legal for three months: They were shocked to find out it could be done on babies later in pregnancy. We started talking about unborn babies having their arms and legs torn off.

Three out of 4 Americans in one recent poll said abortion should be legal in cases of rape or incest. Those cases are unusual, so while we want all babies to have life, should we ignore those cases now and work in areas that have majority support?

I would love to be at the point where all babies are protected and we are arguing over rape and incest, the 1 or 2 percent. I’m not going to give up, but I’m willing to narrow down when abortions are allowed and keep pushing the boundary until we get to that point. 

Pro-lifers are introducing bills about personhood, heartbeat, fetal pain, and so on. Which should we emphasize?

Until we get a Supreme Court that is going to dismantle Roe v. Wade, a lot of these arguments are—I don’t want to say not helpful, but we need to get a major­ity of people in this country electing a good president who puts good judges on the court, and electing senators who confirm those judges. If that doesn’t happen, if we get a pro-abortion president and a pro-abortion majority in the Senate, it doesn’t matter what our disagreements are. Our hands will be tied. Until we are confident that we’ve got those votes on the court, I would encourage people to focus on the things that will bring in pro-life voters or at least not alienate the “mushy middle” who are uncomfortable with making abortion totally illegal. 

What do you say to people who are pro-life but believe President Trump is unfit to be president? 

He’s doing everything we need him to do. He’s cutting off our tax dollars that would go to organizations like International Planned Parenthood to kill babies in other countries. He’s cutting off funding to them here in this country. He is allowing medical personnel to object to involvement in an abortion procedure or assisted suicide because their conscience or their religious and moral values tell them that’s wrong. He is putting justices on the federal bench who will look at the Constitution and not legislate. There might be some things you don’t like about this president, but he is doing what we need him to do to save babies. 

So NRL’s greatest goal this year is to reelect President Trump?

We need one or two more judges on the Supreme Court. That’s not going to solve all problems, but if we can get the court to dismantle Roe and give us a 50-state battleground, we’ll save many more lives than we can now. 

Pro-lifers in many states are disagreeing on the right strategy: personhood bill, heartbeat bill, 20-week bill. Does NRL have a dog in that hunt?

I really truly believe it comes down to the Supreme Court. Until we can get rid of a national law that has tied our hands, a lot of what we’re trying to do could actually be counterproductive. I understand pro-life people getting impatient: 47 years, how many more babies have to die? Let’s do something. But more people are agreeing that abortion is wrong. When New York and Virginia allow abortion through all nine months, people are flabbergasted and move to pro-life. We don’t want to lose our chance to change the Supreme Court and change Roe. So the battles we’re having are fine, but I would like them to wait a little bit. 

So you oppose personhood bills? 

We’ve never been in support because they don’t have any legal impact. 

NRL opposes heartbeat bills for the same reason? 

Our affiliates are split on whether to support them. We know certainly the pro-life movement wants to see them pass, but here’s my concern: If the American public isn’t with you, are we pushing them into the abortion camp when they walk into the voting booth? 

I hear you saying that every time people see how radical the pro-abort agenda is, more move in the pro-life direction. Would you then say we should not rock the boat politically? 

I think that I would. Lots of people are open to hearing our arguments, but they still think there are times when a woman should have that option. When they think we will ban all abortions right now, we’re pushing them to the other side. I’m hopeful that President Trump is reelected and we can settle this in a year or two. Maybe I’m being too optimistic, but I think right now our position is: Don’t rock the boat. 

Do you think John Roberts and Brett Kava­naugh will push for a Roe reversal? 

I don’t expect it. They’ve got a case coming up this spring out of Louisiana. I would not be surprised if they uphold the Louisiana law. I will be very surprised if they use that to dismantle Roe. I don’t think we’ll see that on a 5-4 vote. The country is so divided that I think the Supreme Court will want to have a 6-3 or 7-2 decision.

How can that happen, given the current makeup of the court? 

My goal is to have four more years of Donald Trump as president, so at least two judges who usually vote pro-abortion are replaced.

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Michael Barone

Party politics: Past and present

Thinking about change and continuity as the Iowa caucus approaches

Illustration by Grafilu

Michael Barone, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, has been an author of the annual Almanac of American Politics ever since its first edition in 1971. When I was a child, I had a teacher who had memorized every word of the Old Testament in Hebrew: Give him the first few words of a verse and he’d be off and running, page after page. Michael’s granular knowledge of American politics is like that: Give him a congressional district and he’ll give you a street-level description of its politics. His new book is titled How America’s Political Parties Change (and How They Don’t). Here are edited excerpts of our conversation.

The parties flipped geographically several decades ago: The Democratic-solid South became the Republican-solid South, and the Northeast became mostly Democratic. Are the parties flipping by class now, with blue-collar voters becoming the GOP base? 

These parties have changed their positions on issues for years, but retained a certain basic DNA. The Republican Party has always centered on a core constituency of people who thought of themselves and were thought of by others as typical Americans. The Democratic Party has always been a collation of out-groups, not typical Americans, but who taken together in a diverse country can summon up a majority if they can agree among themselves on platforms and policies. 

How did Northern urban bosses and Southern segregationists get along?

The Democrats until Franklin Roosevelt were not for a strong federal government: They were for state autonomy. Different groups could have their way: segregation in the South, saloons in the North. You go back before the Civil War and the Democratic Party is made up of Catholic immigrants in Northern cities and slave owners in the South. What are the leading Democratic voter groups today? Black Americans and gentry liberals, very rich people. 

You can divide America into two countries: major metro areas with 1 million population or more, and outside those areas—what I call the out-state. That’s about a 50-50 division in the country.

They differ on same-sex marriage.

Gentry liberals favor same-sex marriage almost unanimously. Black voters have been reluctant to back it: We’ve seen that in the nonsupport of black voters for Pete Buttigieg, who is in a same-sex marriage. One of the problems for the Democratic Party is reconciling all those groups. 

African Americans were heavily Republican a century ago.

Black Americans stuck with the GOP from the 1860s to the 1930s, when their experiences in the Great Depression made them marginally Democratic. After the debate over the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Barry Goldwater’s vote against it, they become very heavily Democratic and have stayed that way now for more than 50 years. 

Can that change?

My observation over time is that identifiable groups tend to regress toward the mean, which means they’re more like the average. Unemployment among black and Hispanic voters is the lowest ever recorded. The gains in income are clustered not at the top of the economic scale, but among people who are down at the bottom.

So the class basis of the parties is changing?

The Democratic Party has picked up support among affluent voters and college graduates. The Republican Party has picked up among nonaffluent voters and non–college graduates. It’s been a gradual process, but it accelerated in 2016. We’ve been hearing for many years from Democratic politicians and some Republicans that “the rich get richer, the poor get poorer.” That happened in the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations. It’s not happening during the Trump administration.

No matter what happens, though, elections for president seem to be close. Anything 55 percent and over is a landslide. 

The things that attract one group to a party may repel another group from that party. It tends to balance out. If the working-class people in eastern Kentucky, the coal mine area, see affluent people heavily voting Democratic and being concerned about climate change, they may not vote Democratic anymore. 

You write about “the out-state.” What’s that? 

You can divide America into two countries: major metro areas with 1 million population or more, and outside those areas—what I call the out-state. That’s about a 50-50 division in the country: About half of Americans live in major metro areas, about half don’t.

We need discussion on what you’re really talking about when you say free college, free medical care. When those issues get aired with some thoroughness as they’re likely to in a presidential race, I think people will see some of the problems.

How does that help us to think about what to expect from the crucial Midwest in 2020?

The only Midwestern state that will be heavily Democratic is Illinois, because of Chicago. Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa are up for grabs, and the other Midwestern states look safely Republican. So, we’ll see. The problem with really close elections like 2016’s is that it’s easy to predict which states will be close. It’s hard to predict which candidate will win.

Did race help Obama in 2008?

Some Republican voters remember the Republican Party started as an anti-slavery party. Some Democratic voters remember that the industrial labor unions of the Midwest strongly believed in equal rights for black people. The idea of electing the first black president was attractive to many people in the out-state Midwest. 

Honesty was an issue in 2016 …

“Crooked Hillary,” the email scandal, lying—that was unpopular. Out-state Midwesterners went against the Republican Party during the Watergate crisis. They don’t like dishonesty. While you can attack Donald Trump for making dishonest statements, the honesty issue hurt Hillary Clinton in 2016. 

You’re not a fan of electing presidents by popular vote.

How would they decide the election if it’s very close? Conduct recounts in 3,141 counties the way we did in 67 Florida counties in 2000? Can they compel recounts or recanvassing under state laws? And, we have slightly different voting qualifications in each of the states. 

The U.S. has certainly resisted socialism. You note that in 1932 we had 25 percent unemployment, yet the two socialist candidates received only 2.5 percent of the vote. Now, with little unemployment and much greater wealth, half of millennials tell pollsters they like socialism. What’s happened?

They’ve had high-school education where the only American history they get is in anti-American volumes. Socialism sounds like free stuff. Candidates say I’ll give you free college, free rent, and free Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, and I’ll wipe away your college debt. The two candidates who have raised the most money in the Democratic Party are Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, the two leftmost economic candidates. Democratic contributors tend to be white college grads, not necessarily rich, but affluent enough to send $50 or $100 without thinking much about it.

How do you fight that?

They will come to see they really don’t want to move to Venezuela. They’ve had their university indoctrination, but I hope events will teach them. We need discussion on what you’re really talking about when you say free college, free medical care. When those issues get aired with some thoroughness as they’re likely to in a presidential race, I think people will see some of the problems.

You know the joke from the 1930s: The lower class is Democratic, the middle class is Republican, the upper class is Communist. 

Something to that. People who are heirs to a lot of money tend to be way off to the left. 

Last question, from page 11 of your new book. You write, “The selection of Abraham Lincoln, together with the penetrating intelligence and sublime prudence of the Founders, provides the strongest evidence for the argument that a divine providence had a hand in shaping this nation.” That’s a great sentence. Do you believe it?

Yeah, well, I was raised to be a capital “A” atheist, and I now describe myself as a small “a” agnostic. Do I believe there was divine providence? No, I don’t, but I think there’s strong evidence contrary to my beliefs.


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Vito Tanzi

A reckless path

Could Argentina's economic miseries happen here?

Illustration by Grafilu

Economist Vito Tanzi grew up in Italy, gained a Harvard Ph.D., became a senior staff member of the International Monetary Fund for 27 years, and is now honorary president of the International Institute of Public Finance. Here are edited excerpts of our interview.

Was Argentina when you first went there in the 1960s better off than it is now? I was living in Washington at the time, and my first impression of Buenos Aires was that I was going from a village to a metropolis. Argentina started as a welfare state when it was still a very rich country relative to other countries, but once you created a new mentality, you created a lot of vested interests. Argentina had a very wealthy agricultural sector but did not use that money to accumulate resources for bad days. It used it to hire additional people and expand the welfare state—and eventually got into difficulty in the 1970s and 1980s.

Should countries follow some basic rules to avoid economic failure—such as, “Don’t make slicing up pies more important than baking new pies”? Yeah. Some people say keep spending and it doesn’t matter. The U.S. is moving in a very dangerous direction: If it continues to have a fiscal deficit of 4 or 5 percent per year, so the debt keeps going up, at some point there will be problems. But the first responsibility of a country is to keep its macroeconomic data in equilibrium: You cannot run a large fiscal deficit for a long time without paying a price. The second one is related to the first: You cannot spend for welfare more money than you have. 

Is Modern Monetary Theory, which is becoming popular among some U.S. politicians, an attempt to rely on magic: run deficits but don’t have to pay up, eventually? Yeah, it’s become a cult. In the last two years we have not had much inflation, so the U.S. government has been able to borrow a lot of money with very little immediate cost. There are problems. Pension funds are not accumulating assets, and people when they reach 65 will find out the problem with that. 

What lessons does the experience of Argentina hold for the United States? Bad habits: too much spending in relation to taxes. If you spend too much and don’t have a high savings rate, you have to sell more and more bonds. The public debt of the U.S. is slowly approaching the level of Italy. You project this for 10 years more and you could have a disastrous situation where the debt has grown so much that people would not want to buy it anymore. 

The public debt of the U.S. is slowly approaching the level of Italy.

Then comes hyperinflation. Argentina President Juan Perón, who kept expanding the welfare state, dies in 1974. Inflation in Argentina hits 183 percent in 1975, 444 percent in 1976. How does that happen? Two things. First, the central bank creates more and more money to finance the fiscal deficit. People begin to anticipate that prices will be higher next month than they are today, so they buy all kinds of things, essentially running away from money, and inflation starts zooming up. The moment this happens is always uncertain. 

In the 1980s Argentine inflation slowed down but then jumped again: 400 percent in 1988, 5,000 percent in 1989. What happened? The bad habits came back. The government started spending more than it should. 

Don’t people learn from the past? When the government repeatedly defaults on loans, does that make it difficult to get more loans later, with higher interest rates required? Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, in This Time Is Different, presented lots of historical data related to your question. The answer: People continue to be fooled. They hear lots of good promises. They’re looking for a higher rate of return. Right now many junk bonds are sold in the U.S. because the alternative is to get 0 or 1 percent, but you can get 7 percent by lending to a risky place. The temptation is to do that. 

So the U.S. has a big junk bond problem now? Definitely. It’s a huge amount of debt. Investment companies say they spread the risk over many giant bonds so if one goes broke, they still get from the other. That ignores the systemic risk when you have a recession that affects everybody. 

You’re saying what has happened in Argentina could happen here? It’s less likely. The dollar is still a world currency. But if you keep drinking too much alcohol, there’s a problem. When you have almost no unemployment and you have a fiscal deficit of 5 percent, you begin to worry. What will happen if unemployment goes to 10 percent?

Keynesian theory allows for deficits in bad times, but we’re now running deficits all the time. Yeah, and most governments don’t spend money on the most productive projects. They fund money for welfare or a group that should not be getting the money, and they’re inefficient.

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