The Planned Parenthood showdown rocking Washington is much more than just another skirmish in the never-ending abortion wars.
It’s a struggle that could define political power, on a key social issue that both parties have long used to motivate their most committed voters, for years to come.
For now, Democrats and Republicans are drawing battle lines over whether a government funding package should allow millions of federal dollars to flow to the organization – a fight will play out on Capitol Hill into December.
But the larger battle is for the women’s vote, which will be crucial to Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election.
“Make no mistake: despite what we hear, Republicans are doubling down on their war against women,” said New York Democratic Rep. Carolyn Maloney on Tuesday, at a congressional hearing at which Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards endured an uncomfortable five-hour grilling. “We need to recognize this fight for what it is – it’s about banning a woman’s right to choose.”
Republicans, including presidential candidates Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Carly Fiorina, have seized on videos released this summer which purportedly show Planned Parenthood officials discussing the sale of fetal tissue, seeking to seize on grassroots conservative revulsion and to put potential Democratic rivals on the defensive.
Many Republicans are sincerely motivated by a deep commitment to oppose abortion, which offends their morals and in some case their religious beliefs. But there are also sound political reasons to go after the group – using the edited videos as a tool.
Republicans have repeatedly attempted to wound the organization, partly because Planned Parenthood and its supporters lie at the center of the extended Democratic Party political machine.
“It is an organization that has been around for a long time, in terms of institutional clout and power and influence,” said Kelly Dittmar, a professor of political science at the Rutgers University Center for American Women and Politics. “I think the organization itself has proven itself to be a very astute and strong political power, both in mobilizing women voters and young women voters and also in funding candidates.”
Some Planned Parenthood critics bemoan its political and symbolic weight and dismiss the group’s argument that it is primarily a vehicle for improving women’s health care, often for those in dire economic straits who cannot get good care elsewhere.
“Their impact is in elections,” said Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats for Life, which supports the defunding of Planned Parenthood and supports Democrats who also oppose abortion. “They have the money that they put into elections, into electing Democratic candidates. If you separate the women’s health issue from elections, Democrats would make very different decisions.”
She added: “Instead of protecting one corporation that heavily finances Democratic candidates, they would focus on how to increase funding for healthcare for women.”
Denting Planned Parenthood would represent a victory for the GOP as it girds for new Democratic accusations that it is bent on stripping away women’s health benefits, which have proven a potent electoral device in the past.
At Tuesday’s hearing, Richards argued before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that Planned Parenthood gets most of its funding under Medicaid for health services like contraception and screenings for conditions like sexually transmitted disease and cancer.
But Committee Chairman Rep. Jason Chaffetz, in an impassioned attack, billed Planned Parenthood as a political organization with huge salaries that did not need federal funding.
“This has absolutely nothing to do with providing health care to young women who need a breast exam,” Chaffetz said.
Democrats feel that defending Planned Parenthood can be a political winner and has helped them ostracize Republicans among the crucial demographic of women voters that has opened a gender gap that has helped resolve previous elections in their favor.
In 2012, Obama used his GOP opponent Mitt Romney’s opposition to funding Planned Parenthood to drive home a wider attack that he would not only discriminate against women but was also aloof from the struggles of the Middle Class.
Obama said that Planned Parenthood services were not only important for women’s health but were an economic question.
“That’s a pocket book issue for women and families all across the country,” Obama said at a presidential debate.
Democrats, including front runner Hillary Clinton, who is playing the gender card in a far more flagrant way than she did in her 2008 campaign, has called GOP allegations against the group “troubling” – in the process turning the group into a 2016 issue.
“This is really an attack on Planned Parenthood, which provides a lot of health servies, from cancer screenings, to contraceptive services, to so many other of the needs women have,” Clinton said on CBS show “Face the Nation” on September 20.
The battle over Planned Parenthood also represents an attempt by Republicans to strike at the Democratic Party’s political machinery itself, on an issue – abortion – that both sides have organized multiple elections around and rely on to motivate base voters in close elections.
“So much of the (Republican) agenda revolves around trying to control women’s bodies,” said Josh Nelson, spokesman for Credo, an activist organization that supports progressive issues. “I think if it it wasn’t Planned Parenthood, Republicans would find a different way to do that and there would be a different symbol – they have decided to make it Planned Parenthood.”
In the 2014 electoral cycle, Planned Parenthood spent just under $1.6 million in contributions to political candidates, party committees and PACS and a little more in lobbying, according to OpenSecrets.org, which charts the role of money in politics.
The group, and other pro-choice organizations, also exert strong political pressure on Democrats, beyond funding, said Charles Camosy, a Fordham University professor who argues that both sides use Planned Parenthood as a wedge issue to motivate their most enthusiastic base voters.
Some Democrats dread the “prospect of being primaried, the prospect of being persona non grata with the Democratic leadership. There is a lot of power there,” said Camosy, author of a book called “Beyond the Abortion Wars.”
As an example of the political pressure lawmakers who do not toe the party line could face, Credo is campaigning to convince the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee not to fund any party lawmakers who vote to defund Planned Parenthood.
“We are glad to hold accountable any politician who is on the wrong side of this issue,” said Nelson.