Say you’re a top-tier Republican presidential candidate whose name isn’t Rudy Giuliani. The polls are looking increasingly grim. A survey released yesterday has the former New York mayor more than 20 points ahead of his nearest rival. What do you do?
Well, you might try dusting off the abortion issue to persuade a pro-life party to turn against its pro-choice frontrunner. But that seems to be too much for the two leading candidates nipping at Giuliani’s heels to manage.
Sen. John McCain’s pro-life voting record isn’t perfect — he has supported both federally funded fetal tissue research and embryo-destructive experimentation — but he has been consistent in favoring abortion restrictions since the 1980s. He just hasn’t been especially comfortable expressing himself on social issues, and his relations with pro-life leaders were strained by his attacks on the religious right during the 2000 presidential race.
Campaigning in South Carolina last weekend, however, McCain overcame his bashfulness. The senator told a crowd of 800 that he opposed the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion. “I do not support Roe v. Wade,” McCain said. “It should be overturned.”
A pretty unequivocal statement from a longtime pro-life senator. But then the marvels of technology caught up with John McCain. The Hotline posted a YouTube video of a 1999 McCain appearance on CNN’s Late Edition in which he said it was “obvious” that “if we repeal Roe v. Wade tomorrow, thousands of American young women would be performing dangerous and illegal operations.” The footage shows McCain advocating a tolerance clause for pro-choice Republicans in the GOP platform.
The clip was culled rather dishonestly. McCain actually bookmarked his statement of inclusion with two separate calls for Roe‘s “ultimate repeal.” There is a powerful pro-life case for pursuing legal protection of the unborn gradually and in a manner that is consistent with low maternal abortion death rates. Yet to activists, the senator’s language sounds too much like standard pro-choice debating points, so it becomes a liability.
And it wasn’t the only time he had used such phrasing or sounded so uncertain on Roe. In August 1999, the San Francisco Chronicle quoted him as telling the paper’s editorial board: “I’d love to see a point where (Roe vs. Wade) is irrelevant, and could be repealed because abortion is no longer necessary. But certainly in the short term, or even the long term, I would not support repeal of Roe vs. Wade, which would then force X number of women in America to (undergo) illegal and dangerous operations.”
Of course, when it comes to verbal gymnastics on abortion McCain is an amateur while former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney deserves a gold medal. But that didn’t stop Romney’s conservative coalitions director, Gary Marx, from attacking McCain’s commitment to life. “Ask the pro-life movement where his leadership has been in the six years since 2000 that he’s been running for president,” Gary Marx said to the Politico.”What has he done?”
That’s a pretty bold question given that Marx’s man was officially pro-choice for five years after 2000 — and at least six years before that. In fact, Romney’s abortion shift is so complicated even his special adviser for life issues can’t keep it straight.
Consider pro-life activist James Bopp’s argument on National Review Online: “In his 1994 Senate run, Romney was endorsed by Massachusetts Citizens for Life and kept their endorsement, even though he declared himself to be pro-choice, because he supported parental-consent laws, opposed taxpayer-funded abortion and mandatory abortion coverage under a national health insurance plan, and was against the Freedom of Choice Act, which would have codified Roe v. Wade by federal statute.”
All true. But Bopp doesn’t seem to realize that Romney reversed most of those positions over the course of the 1994 campaign. After accepting the endorsement, Romney adviser Charles Manning told the Boston Herald his boss actually “supports a federal health care option that includes abortion services, would vote for a law codifying the 1972 [sic] Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion and backs federal funding for abortions as long as states can decide they want the money.”
Manning even suggested to the Boston Globe that the largest pro-life organization in Massachusetts had endorsed Romney because he had been pro-choice longer than Ted Kennedy. “[Kennedy] was pro-life before Roe v. Wade and now he’s changed,” Manning explained. “Mitt has always been consistent in his pro-choice position and that’s why the group respects him.” He concluded that there were only “tiny nuances” distinguishing the two candidates’ abortion views.
By the 2002 gubernatorial election, YouTube reminds us, Romney was denying that he had anything to do with the Massachusetts Citizens for Life endorsement. Ruth Marcus reported that he was still equivocating as late as 2005. That year, the 1970 switch on abortion he attributed to his mother and a relative who died from an illegal abortion was reversed when a doctor used the word “destroy” while describing embryonic cloning — a word choice the doctor in question has disputed.
All part of the journey, one supposes.
Meanwhile, Giuliani soars despite offering social conservatives few concessions. Perhaps the moral of the story is this: If you can’t respect life, at least try to respect pro-lifers’ intelligence.