Political Hay

Cain’s Abortion Libertarianism

Is it his problem? Or does it reflect something else about the GOP?

By 10.26.11

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Herman Cain has an abortion issue problem. But so does the Republican Party.

In an interview with John Stossel Mr. Cain gave answers which seemed contradictory saying on the one hand that he is pro-life but on the other hand that the decision of a woman to have an abortion if she is raped is "her choice. Not the government's choice."

And more: "I don't believe government should make that decision." Followed by "No, people shouldn't be just free to abort."

Mr. Stossel was justifiably confused by Cain's remarks, but I think I understand them. Cain did not say that a woman should be prevented from having an abortion, but simply that he believes a woman should choose not to have an abortion.

I don't have the slightest doubt that Herman Cain is, in his own personal belief system, firmly, consistently anti-abortion. Indeed, I defy any Republican candidate in this nation's history to be able to match Cain's record of having committed $1 million of his own money to a pro-life advertising campaign. In particular, Cain funded a series of ads aimed at getting black voters to vote for pro-life candidates rather than blindly voting for Democrats.

But Cain's argument on Stossel was essentially libertarian, and it's a position he reiterated, if clumsily and apparently with an intuition that he might have been stepping in a pile of political Shinola, on Piers Morgan's show on CNN last week: After saying that he believes life begins at conception, when pressed about a rape victim seeking an abortion he offered "it's not the government's role or anybody else's role to make that decision." Further, "whatever they decide, they decide. I shouldn't try to tell them what decision to make."

Dare I say this on pages frequented by Republicans? Hallelujah, Brother Herman.

As heretical as this will sound to the GOP faithful, Herman Cain's true position, as I read the man, is perhaps the best possible position for a candidate in an American presidential election.

Gallup has been polling on this issue for 35 years. With respect to the question of whether respondents are pro-choice or anti-abortion, there is no doubt that the trend has been slowly but surely toward pro-life in this country… but decades of that movement has gotten us to a country that is evenly divided.

However, that is not the most pertinent Gallup result to consider. They also ask a more detailed question, namely whether respondents think abortion should be always legal, sometimes legal, or always illegal.

The percentage of Americans (or at least of Gallup respondents) who believe abortion should always be illegal has never been higher than 23 percent (reached only once, in 2009), and has generally ranged between 18 and 22 percent for the past decade. While this number hovered closer to 15 percent in the 1990s, it was between 17 percent and 22 percent for all but two polls between 1975 and 1991 and thus is not in the uncharted territory that anti-abortion activists might believe or claim.

The percentage of Gallup respondents who think abortion should be "legal under any circumstances" has been between 21 percent and 30 percent, frequently coming in at 26 percent, in every poll for the past fifteen years. The percentage was higher in the early 1990s, in the 30s in every poll from 1990 through 1995, prior to which it was again between 21 and 29 percent in each poll from 1975 to 1989. Again, today's numbers are startlingly similar to the numbers of three decades ago.

Those who say that abortion should be "legal only under certain circumstances" have only twice in the history of the Gallup series been less than the majority, and those results occurred in 1992 when the percentage who said that abortion should always be legal reached its high point, 34 percent. Other than these two extremely pro-choice poll results, the percentage who believe that abortion should be legal sometimes ranged between 50 and 59 percent in every poll but one (that one being a 61 percent result in 1997).

In short, although Americans respond that they are pro-choice and pro-life in roughly equal proportions, there is a large subset of both groups -- but a larger subset of pro-life -- whose position is supportive of allowing abortion in certain cases.

Considering that most Republican presidential candidates argue that abortion should be illegal "without exceptions", this puts them at odds with three quarters of the American public. Indeed, during the entire 35 years of Gallup polling on this question, only once has the combination of those who think abortion should be always legal and those who think it should be sometimes legal come in at 75 percent; every other time it has been higher, usually over 80 percent.

During the past decade, most of the increase in those who self-identify as pro-life have come from Republicans and Republican-leaning independent voters, with a massive 8 percent increase in the latter group from 2007-08 to 2009-2010 (using two-year averages).

On the other hand, the percentage of respondents who say that abortion is morally wrong came in at 50 percent in 2010, right in line with the decade's average. Those who say abortion is morally acceptable came in at 38 percent, about one point lower than the decade's average. Therefore, one must wonder, as Gallup suggests, whether "the trends by party identification suggest that increased political polarization may be a factor in Republicans' preference for the 'pro-life' label, particularly since Barack Obama took office." The increase in "pro-life" self-identification overstates the American public's opposition to abortion, and particularly the desire to make it illegal at all times.

Putting all this together: A statistically significant 12 percent more of the American adult population believes abortion is morally wrong than believe it is morally acceptable. Yet Americans also believe by an enormous 3-to-1 margin that abortion should be legal at least sometimes.

In other words, Americans, including a majority of those who call themselves pro-life, have an essentially libertarian view on abortion: it may be undesirable or wrong, but it is not the government's role to enforce what most American believe to be a particular moral view rather than murder.

This view is how I hear Herman Cain. And, like 9-9-9 (even though I have qualms about that particular plan) it does set Cain apart from all the leading Republican contenders (assuming Mitt Romney actually believes his current position).

Unfortunately for Cain -- and perhaps for the nation -- the position which is likely to be the most appreciated by the general electorate is poison in the Republican nominating process.

Cain has been attacked by Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, Michele Bachman, Karl Rove, and a raft of pro-life activists for his brief dalliance with a libertarian political position melded with a consistently conservative personal philosophy. Santorum sent out a fund-raising please calling Cain's position similar to those of John Kerry, Barack Obama, and other liberals.

This is profoundly unfair to Herman Cain, not just because he's put a million dollars of his own money on the line to spread a pro-life message but also because Kerry and Obama are not just pro-choice, they're aggressively pro-abortion including supporting government funding.

As someone who believes himself to be in the silent majority of Americans on this issue, which is to say uncomfortable with the idea of abortion but more uncomfortable with government force being used to impose a particular segment of society's morality on the rest of the nation, and as someone who wants to see Barack Obama lose (by a wide margin), it pains me to see the nominating process dominated by the "no exceptions" wing of the pro-life movement.

I realize that one case isn't absolute proof. But for those pro-lifers who want to dispute my view that "no exceptions," along with other ultra-hard-line social issues positions, are political losers in key "swing states," I would point to a painful electoral result that Colorado recently lived through.

In 2010 -- a Republican tsunami election -- Republican Ken Buck held consistent polling leads over Democrat Michael Bennet in the race for the U.S. Senate seat to which Bennet had been appointed (when Ken Salazar went to run President Obama's Department of the Interior). Bennet ran a campaign portraying Buck as "too extreme," playing up Buck's opposition to abortion including in the cases of rape and incest. Then Buck said, as Herman Cain also did in the past several days, that homosexuality is a choice. Buck went a step further and compared it to alcoholism. (Even if he believed that, it was the height of political folly to have said so on Meet the Press.) Michael Bennet, who only led one poll tracked within the RealClearPolitics average during the two months before the election, ended up beating Ken Buck in a race that nobody thought the Democrat could win -- until Buck started spouting the conservative social issues hard line.

Anti-abortion activists in Iowa and elsewhere have Herman Cain walking back his controversial remarks on abortion. But the real problem is not that Cain wants government to stay out of imposing his personal moral view on others. The problem is that Cain's position is controversial and perhaps politically fatal within the Republican Party politics.

If Republicans cared about winning, more of them would be cheering on Cain's views on abortion rather than assailing him for them. Whether anti-abortion activists like it or not, moves to make abortion illegal in all circumstances are unpopular in the United States -- including among many who call themselves "pro-life." Cain's comments may have been politically unwise in today's high-tension, high-stakes environment. And those comments might -- along with other rookie mistakes -- cost him a real shot at the Republican nomination. But the same hard-line positions among socially conservative activists which will now damage Cain's electoral aspirations will make it more difficult to beat Barack Obama next November.

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About the Author
Ross Kaminsky is a self-employed trader and investor and is a senior fellow of the Heartland Institute. He is the host of The Ross Kaminsky Show on Denver's NewsRadio 850 KOA on Saturday mornings from 6 AM to 9 AM. You can reach Ross by e-mail at rossputin(at)rossputin(dot)com.