Update (8/26): After a sharply critical editorial in the Boston Globe (calling the ads “a mugging”), and a letter signed by Barney Frank and Michael Dukakis (condemning the “inaccurate and unfair attack”), Emily’s List’s SuperPAC has agreed to pull its ads — one week before the election, after spending probably $500,000 to spread their sleazy attacks. The damage done, the SuperPAC retreats.
Emily’s List is an organization working to increase the number of women in politics. That objective is unambiguously good. It has a SuperPAC that it uses to achieve those ends. That means, or tool, could either be a necessary evil—or just evil. When matching outside spending for anti-equality candidates, or promoting the virtues of candidates who are women, a SuperPAC can balance the corruptions of a broken political system. But in MA-04, Emily’s List’s SuperPAC is practicing the worst of American politics, against a candidate who has only ever promoted the interests of women.
In a series of ads costing at least $350,000, Emily’s List’s SuperPAC — Women Vote—has attacked Democratic candidate Alan Khazei for his alleged willingness to “work with Republicans to use Reproductive Rights as a bargaining chip in health care.” (Full disclosure: I support and have contributed to Alan’s campaign.) That charge originates from an 11-year-old article in Politico, quoting Khazei as expressing support for Nancy Pelosi’s strategy to move what would become Obamacare out of the House of Representatives.
The only way, as our then representative Barney Frank told me, that Pelosi could pass Obamacare was to include an amendment by a pro-choice Democrat, Bart Stupak, which would have — if it had become law—limited funding for reproductive rights under the ACA. But Pelosi knew that the Democratic Senate would strip the worst of the amendment out of the bill. And so to assure that it passed the House of Representatives, she and every Democratic representative from Massachusetts and every Democratic woman in the House supported the strategy, while, like Khazei, criticizing the Stupak Amendment. Pelosi was right: the amendment was effectively stripped in the Senate. And without her leadership, Obamacare would not have passed the House of Representatives (the vote was 219–217), and would not have become law.
Obamacare has saved thousands of lives and billions in health care costs. And so one might well ask, how could anyone ever justify opposing Obamacare because it might not include enough money for reproductive rights? The extremism in that position should disqualify anyone who endorses it — an extremism, as Barnet Frank puts it, that “luxuriates in the purity of its irrelevance”—and an extremism that was not embraced by a single Democratic woman in the House of Representatives.
And yet that is precisely the extremism that stands behind Emily’s List SuperPAC’s attack: Khazei is falsely represented as opposed to women because he agreed with the strategy of the first female Speaker of the House to assure the passage of the most important social legislation in at least two generations.
Emily’s List has not opposed Nancy Pelosi because of her strategy. Neither did it oppose Tammy Baldwin, who as a member of the House, did exactly the same thing. Nor has it criticized any of the women in the House of Representatives who, as they put it, “work[ed] with Republicans to use Reproductive Rights as a bargaining chip in health care.” And while the attack might be tolerable against a candidate who had not actually championed women’s rights, it is an absurd misrepresentation of Alan Khazei. As Karen Mulhauser, Founder of Every Woman Vote 2020, and Executive Director of the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) from 1974 to 1981, stated:
“I’m tremendously disappointed that Mass Women Vote is putting out false attack ads against Alan Khazei and ask that they take this ad down.”
Khazei is, Mulhauser continued, “a strong champion for Women’s rights, including the right to choose and healthcare for all.” Her view is being echoed by many in the Women’s movement, including 100 who have released a letter criticizing the SuperPAC’s corruptly misleading attack.
Democrats say that they are against the corrupting influence of money in politics. And certainly, Nancy Pelosi, the architect of the strategy that Emily’s List’s SuperPAC attacks, has been a champion of fundamental corruption reform, passing HR 1 in the House of Representatives.
But if the party is really a true believer, then every candidate should embrace Elizabeth Warren’s innovation from 2010—the People’s Pledge—to oppose outside spending, at least within Democratic primaries criticizing Democrats. Maybe SuperPACs are necessary in general elections, so long as campaign finance laws are so corrupt. But it’s time that every Democrat swears off these engines of corruption — at least if they attack other Democrats.
If you can’t win a race with just the support that you can inspire, go be a Republican. Democrats should stand for something better.