A decade ago, it would have been unthinkable to have a presidential candidate with a stance on abortion that was largely unknown to the American people. But as Sarah Blustain, senior editor at The New Republic, found out, while writing a piece about John McCain’s real position on reproductive rights, that seems to be just the case with the senior Senator from Arizona.
Blustain, in an investigation of McCain’s stance on reproductive rights supported by The Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund, uncovered a major flip-flop in McCain’s campaign. In her article, titled “Life Sentence — Stop kidding yourself: John McCain is a pro-life zealot,” she parses out the two McCains on reproductive rights issues:
“To many voters, the McCain of 2000 is the true McCain, with his latest statements constituting an understandable, if undignified, pander to the GOP’s right-wing base. They simply cannot believe that the maverick who defied the party’s hard-core social conservatives on embryonic stem cell research and campaign finance reform would toe the conservative line on abortion. But, in truth, it was his 2000 position on abortion that was the outlier — a short-lived attempt to court the center after George W. Bush had locked up the religious right’s support. McCain is not, and never was, a moderate.”
The article thoroughly investigates the evidence, which all points to McCain as a conservative on this issue, including both anecdotes from friends and enemies, as well as the time-tested method of examining a lawmaker’s voting record. Despite McCain’s long, unwaveringly anti-reproductive rights history, the public seems unaware of his hard and fast stances on women’s health.
“The public wants to believe this maverick image, and voting records are boring,” Blustain said in a telephone interview with BuzzFlash. “No matter how many times he says centrist-sounding things, anyone who looks at his record [can see that] he has been with the radicals every time. He will do as he has done since 1982, which is not a short record, and people should believe it.”
Many journalists and pundits have pointed out the contradictions between the McCain who ran for president in 2000 and today’s presumptive Republican nominee. But for Blustain, reproductive rights is paramount.
“He’s definitely flip-flopped on other things,” she said. “This is, to me, the biggest one.”
With the war in Iraq and the faltering economy topping voters’ issue lists this election season, Blustain says the media has less of an incentive to cover other campaign issues, such as abortion. But she also argued that this is not necessarily the best year for voters to put a candidate’s stance on abortion aside. She said the abortion issue “should matter more this time, simply because the legacy of the judges” will outlast the four or eight years of the next presidency.
The especially precarious ideological balance in the Supreme Court today, along with the advanced ages of some serving on the Court means the future of Roe v. Wade could depend upon the political identity of the next president.
“Clearly there’s a good case to be made in this election, where the Supreme Court is so tight,” Blustain said. “This is a really important election in terms of defining the courts.”
As Blustain points out in her article, McCain is walking a fine line on the issue of abortion. While he wants to bring disaffected Clinton moderates into his fold, he has had problems with the religious right, and going soft on abortion will not help him get any votes from that side of the electorate.
“In 2000, they helped kill his campaign,” she said of the vicious attacks from the religious right against McCain, particularly in South Carolina, during that year’s primary season. “He has barely sewn up the support of the right… He just cannot possibly swerve on this.”
So, it seems McCain is stuck. As Blustain sees it, the candidate could go two different ways.
The first she describes as “the reasonable-minds-can-differ approach,” which is the one she’s rooting for. In this scenario, McCain could preach a “party of tolerance,” which would not feel the need to alienate its members based solely on their beliefs regarding abortion. McCain’s taste for such tactics is evident in the middle-of-the-road nature of his 2000 campaign. McCain’s suggestion of a change (one recently rescinded by his campaign staff) to the Republican Party platform statement on abortion also falls along these more flexible lines.
Though Blustain says McCain was never actually moderate on abortion, she notes he was willing to deal in compromises in both the aforementioned cases. However, Blustain wouldn’t necessarily chalk McCain’s flexibility up to ideology. In the 2000 campaign, for example, she notes McCain couldn’t swing to the right, because George W. Bush had a monopoly on the religious right as a voting bloc. So, McCain went to the center. Now that he is the nominee eight years later, he is being pulled rightward.
The other possible way for McCain to deal with reproductive rights is by what Blustain described as “ducking, and trying to avoid it at all costs.” The theory goes like this: The less McCain says, the fewer voters will abandon him over his views on abortion. However, the question will surely come up at some point, at least in a debate. So then what?
“Either he will completely flub it, or he’ll say ‘I’m pro-life,’” said Blustain. Alternatively, she said McCain could rely on confusing and overly academic language railing against activist judges, which she said was probably his safest bet. She said such language, while riddled with “very nice code words for the right,” is largely unknown to the average American.
“Nine out of 10 [people] would not know what a ‘strict constructionist’ is,” she said.
While there’s a certain amount of unanswerable questions in the article (one favorite that may never be revealed: Is McCain pretending not to understand women’s health issues, or is he feigning ignorance?), Blustain was sure of one thing: McCain is a “true believer,” who is passionately pro-life.
“He’s simply boxed in by the politics. I have no idea what he would say if he were not boxed in,” she said of McCain. However, “when you pull back from his political posing, his record still stands.”
A BUZZFLASH NEWS ALERT
To find out more about McCain’s record on reproductive rights, see Sarah Blustain’s article in The New Republic.