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From "Nuanced" to Principled: The Lessons of Pastor Rick, and Why and How Obama and the Democrats Should Make Abortion a Voting Issue

If Democrats continue to parry Republican war cries of "baby killer" or continue to couch the debate in terms of life vs. choice, they do indeed have something to worry about.
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For years Democratic candidates have struggled with how to counter Republican stands that paint the world in black and white, readily summarized in brief, evocative phrases (e.g., "life begins at conception," "tax and spend," "cut and run"). A prime example is abortion, which has left Democrats outside the Northeast and Northwest (where candidates can safely proclaim, "I'm pro-choice" and live to talk about it) and national candidates tongue-tied for years.

Barack Obama faced this problem Saturday night at Rick Warren's "Saddleback Civil Forum on the Presidency." When asked when he believes life begins, he led with a wonderfully disarming comment about the answer to that question being "above my pay grade." But he then proceeded to offer a somewhat rambling, discursive response that I can't readily summarize after having just read the transcript three times. The main thing I remember is that he said he believes in a woman's right to choose and Roe v. Wade. Commentators referred to his response, like many of his responses Saturday night, as "nuanced," a politic way of saying that it showed greater complexity than his Republican opponent's answer but had the usual ring of a Democratic presidential candidate's response to a question about an emotionally charged issue: too intellectual and difficult to grasp its essence.

When asked the same question, John McCain knew what his task was: to convince the far right, and particularly Christian conservatives, that he is one of them. So his answer was crisp and unequivocal: "At the moment of conception. I have a 25-year pro-life record in the Congress and in the Senate. And as president of the United States, I will be a pro-life president and this presidency will have pro-life policies. That's my commitment."

So is the problem, as many apologists on the left would suggest, that progressive positions are just more complex and not easily reduced to sound bites? Yes and no. Sure, it's easier to summarize a Manichean world view than one that posits more than two forces in the world (good and evil) and more than two options in every situation (pro-life vs. pro-death, staying the course vs. surrender, free markets vs. communism). But the problem is not that our ideas are too sophisticated. It's that the way we present those ideas is not sophisticated enough.

Most Americans actually disagree with John McCain on abortion, as they do on most of the issues that separate him and his Democratic rival. Polls show that only 30% of Americans believe all abortions should be illegal, and few support a return to the pre-Roe era. The majority -- including the majority of evangelical Christians, who made up Warren's audience -- think we should find some kind of "middle ground" on abortion. The reason is that most Americans are ambivalent about abortion. Virtually no one -- left, right, or center -- is comfortable with late term abortions except when the mother's life or health is in danger. The idea of aborting an 8-month-old fetus for convenience (something no one would really do, but it makes a great bogey man to push Democrats down slippery slopes) is deeply disturbing to the vast majority of Americans in a way that aborting a 10-week-old fetus is not.

Why? Because the concept of life is what cognitive psychologists call a "fuzzy set" -- a concept that doesn't have clear boundaries. Unconsciously, most people view a newly fertilized embryo as qualitatively different from a late-term fetus because it doesn't seem like a person. But the point at which a fetus seems to us more like a person than not is indeterminate.

Regardless of their conscious beliefs -- that life begins at conception or that life begins when a baby takes its first breath -- most people's feelings follow their unconscious perceptions. That's why early in pregnancy even most evangelical Christians find it morally repugnant to force a rape victim to bear her rapist's child, even though they may consciously believe that the fertilized egg is a life, whereas late in pregnancy most people aren't comfortable with abortion except in exceptional circumstances. In their guts, most people feel that Roe v. Wade got it about as right as we're going to get it -- which is why the vast majority of Americans don't want it overturned -- even if they can't articulate why.

The million dollar question is how to talk about an issue that requires nuance in a way that is succinct, principled, and captures our gut-level sensibilities. If Democrats continue to parry Republican war cries of "baby killer" with emotionally bland or euphemistic phrases like "reproductive health" or continue to couch the debate in terms of life vs. choice, offering ambivalent voters a Hobson's choice, they do indeed have something to worry about.

But that isn't how Democrats should talk about abortion. The pollster Stan Greenberg and I recently completed the first draft of one of the most wide-ranging progressive messaging projects of which I am aware, using a sample of 10,000 to study 10 different ways of talking about 9 issues, from wedge issues (e.g., abortion, guns, gays, immigration) to national security and taxes (where Democrats have traditionally similarly been on the run) to the economy (where Democrats hold an advantage). We found that progressives can win the abortion debate by 15 to 20 points seven different ways against a strong "pro-life" message much like the one McCain offered Saturday night, and they can win in some very unlikely parts of the country. When progressives speak honestly to voters' ambivalence and make their principles clear and emotionally compelling, Americans tend to prefer honesty and nuance to oversimplification. The answer doesn't lie in "dumbing down" our messages. It lies in ratcheting up their emotional intelligence. On some issues it took us several tries in focus groups and online dial-tests to find the words that conveyed what we were trying to express without triggering some other meaning we hadn't intended, but by the time we had completed the latest round of testing, we had multiple messages that beat well-branded conservative messages by 8 to 30 points on every issue.

The language of "choice" is not, in fact, the most compelling way to engage most Americans on abortion. It doesn't resonate with most voters in the center, and it activates negative stereotypes about feminism and promiscuity (and, not surprisingly, it polls particularly poorly with men, who have conflicting feelings about both). It was the right language in the 1960s, when women's right to control their own bodies was emblematic of their struggle for equality, but that was 40 years ago, and as meanings change, so should messages. It is a particularly weak appeal to an evangelical Christian audience, for whom it begs the question, "Whose choice matters most, God's or a (mortal) woman's?"

Obama wasn't going to win over the majority of Warren's parishioners, but he could have spoken to them in their own language while winning the hearts and minds of the majority who were listening on television. He might have begun by acknowledging the obvious, that he knew he wasn't going to convince most of Pastor Rick's flock, but that he was nonetheless one of them, with a comment like, "Well, I knew at some point I was going to be in there with the lions. I know many of you won't agree with me, but I hope my answer at least leaves you with as much respect for me and my beliefs as I have for you and yours." He could then have continued, once again drawing them in while addressing concerns about him that had been raised in recent weeks, "The Bible says that pride is a sin, and I'd be showing more pride than even John McCain thinks I have, with those celebrity and Moses ads, if I told you that I know with certainty when life begins. I wish I did, because then this would be an easy question. But here's where I stand":

No one truly knows what's in the mind of God, and I just don't like the idea of government telling a woman or couple when they should or shouldn't start their family based on somebody else's interpretation of Scripture. We need to find the common ground on abortion, reflecting our shared moral beliefs, not the beliefs that divide us. We are all united in the belief that we should do everything we can to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies, teen pregnancies, and abortions, starting with instilling in our children both the values and the knowledge to make good choices. And we all agree that abortion shouldn't be used as a form of birth control and shouldn't be an option late in pregnancy except when the mother's life or health is in danger. I could go on and talk about how misguided I think our currently policies are that deny access to birth control to women and teenagers in our inner cities, which does nothing but perpetuate the cycle of poverty, stop young people from getting an education and fulfilling their God-given potential, and make it more likely that they'll have children before they're ready to be good parents. But the main point I want to make is that in this country, we don't force one person to live by another person's faith. This should be a personal and moral issue, not a political one.

This is a variation of one of the messages we tested, although it is considerably longer than those messages, which we kept to about 45 seconds. I revised it here to fit both the audience and the central narrative of Obama's campaign (the theme of focusing on what unites and not what divides us).

I'm not claiming that this is the best or only narrative Obama could have offered on abortion. Central to Obama's appeal is his genuineness, and the only messages he should offer voters are those that fit his values and style. But this way of talking about abortion has several features that render it a strong, principled message. It isn't hard to come away with the central theme, because it's offered in both the opening sentence and at the end: That as long as we do not all share the same religious beliefs, the government has no business forcing one person to live by another person's faith. It speaks to religious freedom and government intrusion, two themes usually associated with narratives on the right but that should be central to a progressive narrative on abortion. It recognizes, as Obama did in his actual answer, that this is a moral issue, and it builds on common ground, emphasizing themes like reducing teen pregnancies and instilling values that are shared by both the left and right and hence are likely to be compelling to people in the center. And it re-enfranchises males by reminding men that they have a stake in this, too: that although ultimately the decision to abort or not to abort resides with the mother, women usually make these decisions together with their husbands or boyfriends, and that a woman or couple, not the government, should make these kinds of intensely personal decisions.

I would be remiss not to conclude with one final thought. The impact of a message doesn't reside solely in the words, metaphors, imagery, frames, or neural networks it triggers or fails to trigger. The messenger, the delivery, and the nonverbal communication are equally important. This year Democrats have chosen a messenger who is a tremendously gifted orator. But Obama has not been able to translate what he can do on the stump to debates or interviews. In contrast to McCain, who had clearly been coached to speak to his audience, to use personal examples, and to stay focused throughout on his primary goal--to convince doubters on the right that he is one of them -- Obama too rarely spoke to his audience, too rarely connected with personal stories, and did not seem to have come into the evening with a game plan of what he wanted to accomplish.

None of that should have happened after over 20 debates and hundreds of television appearances, and none of it would have happened after the second or third Democratic debate if Democrats understood the importance of narratives and nonverbal cues. Republican presidential candidates have outperformed their Democratic counterparts for most of the last 40 years in message, and they have outperformed them in delivery. The reason is simple: They have understood the value of both. Whether or not McCain had a little help outside the cone of silence Saturday night when he sauntered into the church in time to have heard half the questions, there is no question that he had the benefit of superb coaching on both his verbal and nonverbal messages. The Obama team needs to take the cue. If someone with the appropriate expertise hasn't spent a few days with Obama watching the tapes of his prior debate performances and giving him feedback on what voters are picking up between his words, there's no better way he could spend the week of the Republican Convention.

Drew Westen, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at Emory University, founder of Westen Strategies, and author of "The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation," recently released in paperback with a new postscript on the 2008 election.