In 2000, in a debate just before the South Carolina primary, John McCain
confronted his opponent, George W. Bush, for the latter’s failure to
disavow the Republican party’s plank on abortion. McCain repeatedly
asked Bush, "Do you believe in the platform on abortion the way it is
written — with no exception for the life of the mother, no exception for
rape or incest?"
McCain appeared incredulous that Bush could support such an extremist
platform, without those exceptions. In 2007, McCain reaffirmed his
commitment to change the Party’s platform to reflect these changes.
That was then. Now it is widely assumed that McCain will drop his call
for these changes. In the words of Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, for
McCain to continue to call for a revised platform, "would be political
suicide…I think he would be aborting his own campaign because that
is such a critical issue to so many Republican voters."
Are Perkins and other Christian conservatives courted by McCain, such as Senator Sam Brownback, co-chair of the nominee’s Justice Advisory
Committee, correct in their view that a challenge on the abortion plank
would doom his run for the presidency?
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This question, of course, captures the larger dilemma swirling around
McCain’s candidacy — go too much to the Center and lose the base, swing
too much to the Right and lose the independents and moderate
Republicans (yes, there still are some left). Which is more costly a
strategy for him? Or put another way, how long can McCain get away with
at one moment seeking the endorsements of right-wing preachers whose
statements are every bit as incendiary as those of the Rev.
Jeremiah Wright, and at the next, go on the Daily Show and act like a
very charming and hip person who could not possibly believe the
outrageous positions he is forced by circumstances to take?
McCain’s "maverick" image has misled a considerable number of voters into believing he is for abortion rights.
In fact, he has long been opposed to abortion. The differences now is
that the "straight talker" appears more than willing to overlook his
previous more thoughtful positions in order to please his extremist
friends. Several years ago, McCain was on record as saying reversing Roe
would not be a good idea, because of the likelihood of women resorting
to illegal and dangerous abortions; today, he calls for the immediate
overturning of Roe.
While McCain struggles to keep both the right and the center happy, it
is our job, as progressives, to let the American people know what his
party — and presumably, he — is capable of supporting. The utterly draconian nature of the Republican party’s official position on
abortion has not gotten the attention it deserves, either from the
media or, surprisingly, from abortion rights advocates themselves. No
exception for the life of the woman?!
Recall that South Dakota voters in
2006 voted down a ban on abortions that had a life exception, but did
not have one for rape and incest. Assuming there are reporters and
debate moderators willing to call him on it, how possibly will McCain
defend a position on abortion that, even if symbolic, is breathtaking
in its callous disregard for women?
There is no question that in the coming general election campaign Barack Obama (assuming
he will be the Democratic nominee) will be targeted by antiabortion
forces because of his support for abortion rights. In particular, we
can expect that Obama’s expressed disagreement with the most recent
Supreme Court decision on abortion, Gonzales v. Carhart, will be
relentlessly revisited in TV and radio ads to selected audiences. Obama’s statement after the decision voiced his concern that the Court for
the first time upheld an abortion law that did not allow an exception
for women’s health.
Since this decision involved a ban on a rarely used procedure, that
has been successfully sensationalized for years by opponents as
"partial birth abortion," and which many Americans find upsetting, we
can expect Republicans to hammer him on this point.
But I believe that if Americans are told that John McCain, and the
party for which he is a standard bearer, stand behind the proposition
that it is preferable that women die, rather than have an abortion,
that will be substantially more upsetting. Words matter. If McCain
insists on placating the fanatics in his party, let him start paying a