The "Maverick" Steps Back in Line

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?

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 price.

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