Why Candidates Dance the Abortion Shuffle

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In modern American politics, there is precious little middle ground on the subject of abortion. Any candidate who tries to situate himself on that thin strip of real estate often finds himself in a heck of a precarious state — generally angering many and pleasing very few. The current primary season has produced no exceptions to that rule; the painstaking bob-and-weave of abortion politics has become, to varying degrees, woven into the major candidates' public appearances.

Although you'd never guess it from voters' well-documented and much discussed state of campaign burnout, the current frenzy over Roe v. Wade et al. is probably just the warm-up to the general election. Any candidate aiming for the White House knows he's got to somehow please his party (extremists and all) to win the primaries and earn a chance to woo the general public, the majority of whom subscribe to some aspect of pro-choice philosophy. In recent years particularly, that balancing act has become a focal point for the major Republican candidates — even as it has evolved into a matter of course for the solidly pro-choice Democrats.

This year's Democrats can count on one sure thing in the coming months: The pro-choice lobby will gladly back either one of them, although Bill Bradley has done his best in recent days to throw a wrench into the works, accusing Al Gore of flip-flopping on the issue. But despite Gore's pro-life letters to constituents — and votes to match — during his 1977-1984 term in the House of Representatives, groups like the National Abortion Rights Action League have no qualms about his current incarnation as a staunchly pro-choice candidate. Bradley and Gore have also fallen in line with the Clinton administration's vow to veto any legislation seeking to ban late-term abortion. "The Democratic candidates are both fully pro-choice," says National Abortion Rights Action League press secretary William Lutz. "Our attention is focused on the GOP field, which is composed entirely of anti-choice candidates, who would each use all their power as president to make abortion illegal."

And while that prediction is probably an overstatement, the Republican also-rans are doing their part to keep the pro-life pressure on John McCain and George W. Bush. Bush, in particular, faces a continual storm of criticism on his apparent lack of dedication to a constitutional amendment overturning Roe v. Wade. Steve Forbes has persistently accused Bush of being "soft" on abortion, and while he was forced during the Iowa caucuses to emphasize his pro-life record, the Texas governor may not have done enough to quash the perception that he is waffling on the issue. He has said repeatedly that he would not use views on Roe v. Wade as a litmus test for Supreme Court nominees, a perennial point of contention within the Republican party.

Some within the party might agree with TIME chief political correspondent Eric Pooley: "If you're a pro-life Republican, you're uncomfortable with Bush on this issue."

David O'Steen, executive director of National Right to Life's political action committee, disagrees with that assessment. "If the Republican race were to come down to Governor Bush and Senator McCain, we would urge people to vote for Bush. He has a very strong pro-life record," says O'Steen. Bush's refusal to set opposition to Roe v. Wade as a prerequisite for a Supreme Court seat doesn't faze O'Steen. "He said he would support strict constructionist nominees for the Supreme Court — and there is nothing in the Constitution protecting the right to abort babies. An intellectually honest judge would find that Roe v. Wade is both ethically and constitutionally corrupt."

Even without the aid of O'Steen's rationale, ardently pro-life voters may see Bush as the clear choice, because whatever Bush's shortcomings may be, John McCain makes major players in the anti-abortion lobby incredibly nervous. "We're very concerned," says O'Steen. "McCain has stated that he does not support the reversal of Roe v. Wade in either the short term or long term. And while his campaign has tried to say he misspoke on the issue, he has never retracted the statement." Pro-life activists also point to McCain's ambivalent statements to regional media outlets as a sign of his lack of passion for the issue. "He seems to try to lessen his pro-life stance in more liberal parts of the country," says O’Steen. "He'll go before editorial boards in California and say one thing and then turn around and say just the opposite in South Carolina." This trend has led O'Steen's committee to run ads in South Carolina, urging primary voters there not to vote for McCain.

But while O'Steen may not like McCain's media-savvy ways, there are signs that certain blocs within the Republican party may be taking copious notes. The GOP's attitude toward abortion has never been as ambivalent as it is today. Back in the Reagan era, there was a rarely spoken but readily understood opposition to abortion, but no one felt much of a need to talk about the issue, except at various prayer breakfasts with social conservatives. Then, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a spirit of contention started to percolate; Republicans for Choice began their vigorous questioning of the party's unyielding position. In response, many of the party's die-hard abortion foes hurriedly bulked up the anti-abortion language in the GOP platform, and Patrick Buchanan delivered a scathing indictment of moderate Republican politics at the 1992 national convention. The media seized upon the dissension in the GOP ranks, and the attention dealt a blow to perceptions of party unity.

Party officials were (and still are) all too aware that if any one issue has the power to splinter the party, it could very well be abortion. With one eye on an electorate that is increasing socially liberal, GOP leadership urged members to ease their "zealous approach" to the issue, and candidates from Lamar Alexander to John McCain have urged the party to include voters and candidates with varying views on abortion. These days, negative language tends to focus on late-term abortion, skirting judgment on the general procedure altogether. The party faithful will keep a sharp eye on the platform language this summer in Philadelphia; while the platform has evolved into little more than a conciliatory nod to the conservative wing of the GOP, it can be useful as an indicator of change.

In these days of instant polls and lightning-quick position papers, it becomes increasingly difficult to trace personal commitments to any issue. If the press continues to press Bush on abortion, or Gore admits to past pro-life leanings, the campaigns could get interesting. Otherwise, we can look forward to a bare minimum of straight talk, and a virtual pageant of verbal contortionism.


The National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League

The National Right to Life Committee