What Was Stupak Thinking?

That executive order probably isn't worth much

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Why did Rep. Bart Stupak change is mind on health care? On December 19, after reflecting on the recently passed Senate health care bill, Stupak scoffed. "The Senate abortion language is not acceptable," he said. He argued it would extend public funding for abortion. On Sunday, however, he changed his mind after President Obama agreed to sign an executive order specifying that there will be "no public funding for abortion." The move is baffling political pundits because, according to most independent observers, the executive order is "meaningless" and can't overrule provisions in the bill. So what was Stupak thinking?

  • He Caved Under Pressure, writes Amy Sullivan at Time: "It's really hard to interpret this as anything other than Stupak caving in order to end up on the side of supporting health reform...Stupak's continued insistence that only his approach to abortion funding was sufficient started to look at best as if he was doing the work of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and at worst as if it was just all about him. Once the members of his coalition--supposedly a dozen strong as of a few weeks ago--started to drop off one-by-one, Stupak found himself scrambling to save face. So now he's ticked off the White House, ticked off the House leadership, ticked off the nuns...and now royally ticked off his former boosters in the pro-life movement who can't believe he changed his mind in exchange for this executive order."
  • He's Exploiting Voter Ignorance, writes Ilya Somin at Volokh Conspiracy, who prefaces that he's pro-choice: "The Stupakites saw an opportunity to satisfy their pro-life constituents while at the same time mending fences with the Democratic Party leadership that had made this bill their top priority. Unlike members of Congress, most voters are rationally ignorant about the details of policy and are unlikely to have either the time or the expertise needed to study the order in detail and determine whether it is likely to have any effect. Thus, pro-life Democratic voters might well accept Stupak’s, Obama’s, and the media’s claims that this order represents a significant change. If this conjecture is correct, the Stupak reversal may be another example of the political exploitation of voter ignorance."
  • He Didn't Have Enough Sway, writes Jonathan Alter at Newsweek: "Stupak had lost his leverage after he insulted nuns on television and, lacking support of the Catholic Hospital Association and other Catholic groups, found that the backing of the bishops was no longer enough to give him much clout. Several of his pro life colleagues--like Rep.  Marcy Kaptur--had already announced their support for the bill. So it was no surprise that agreement by President Obama... would be enough to secure Stupak's vote."
  • He Was Just Plain Ignorant, suggests Neil Patel at The Daily Caller: "During my eight years in Government, I spent countless hours sitting around conference tables debating the terms of various executive orders.  One argument I never heard was that an executive order can overrule the law... When it comes to abortion restrictions through executive orders, I share the recollection of my former colleague Yuval Levin:  'This was a question the Bush administration examined quite extensively on several occasions, and the lawyers involved always agreed that the legal precedents from the time between the Roe decision and passage of the Hyde amendment, as well as some after the Hyde amendment, are extremely clear in stating that federal funds cannot be denied to the provision of abortion except by explicit legislative prohibition.'"
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.