Steven Waldman

Steven Waldman

How Obama Won the Abortion Part of the Debate: Common Ground and Sacred Sex

This was Obama’s worst performance overall but I thought one of his strongest moments was when the discussion, at long last, came to a “values” issue — abortion.The key point to remember is that in a debate like this, at this late date in a campaign, the political goal is to position oneself as sensible and mainstream. McCain scored points that would appeal to pro-life activists, while Obama kept relentlessly focused on the ambivalent middle. McCain went after Obama; Obama went after undecided voters.The discussion began with McCain on the offense, painting Obama as the extremist. McCain focused on the two issues in which Obama seems most out of the mainstream — the “born alive” bill, involving babies born during abortions and late term abortions. Obama did an adequate job defending himself but still let McCain define the terms of the debate at that point.McCain meanwhile headed toward the middle by emphasizing not that he opposes abortion but rather that he wants the states to decide the issue. No extremism there. But for the rest of the abortion discussion, Obama outflanked McCain. It was Obama who made the call for finding common ground by reducing the number of unintended pregnancies and sent the dial-meters soaring by saying children should be taught that “sexuality is sacred.” That one phrase probably did more to cast Obama as a cultural moderate than anything he’s said in all the debates. McCain used language that would thrill pro-life activists but either alienate or confuse most centrist voters. For instance, when Obama said he would support a ban on late term abortion if it includes an exception for the health of the mother, McCain gleefully pounced on what he – and pro life activists — view as a slippery dodge by Obama. Aha! That’s the sneaky way that pro-choice activists gut a partial birth ban, activists were cheering at home. But to a typical American, not steeped in the linguistic battles of the abortion wars, it was Obama who sounded reasonable and McCain who seemed uncaring and extreme.McCain referred to those who are pro-choice as being “pro-abortion” — a turn of phrase commonly used by pro-life activists — but which may grate on the large chunk of Americans who view themselves as pro choice but not at all pro-abortion. Obama tapped that sentiment by talking about it as a difficult moral issue and saying “nobody’s pro-abortion. I think it’s always a tragic situation.”And on Roe v. Wade, Obama finally used phrasing that seemed straightforward and clear. For most of the campaign, he’s talked about “overturning Roe” and “protecting Roe” as if he were still lecturing at law school. This time he said it in clear terms: he believes that the Constitution has a right to privacy.McCain, meanwhile, gave an answer on judicial appointments that was confusing or even duplicitous. He started off clearly stating that he would impose no litmus test on abortion, selecting judges only on the basis of experience and judgment. But at the very end of the riff he said that, of course, a judge who supported Roe would be demonstrating a disqualifying amount of bad judgment. In other words, he does have a pro-life litmus test. I don’t think most people will pick up on the contradiction the way an abortion-obsessive like myself did but I do think the passage sounded confusing.What’s the importance of this one abortion exchange? The hardcore pro-life or pro-choice voters have long since decided who they’re voting for (and this debate will probably energize activists on both sides to work a bit harder for their guy). But the real prize is the undecided voter, who by definition tends to be in the middle. They’ll likely go for the man who grabs the center. They’re not culture warriors.Specifically, I think this evening will help Obama close the deal with some centrist Catholics who are leaning toward Obama because of the economy but wary about his position on abortion. They didn’t need to be convinced Obama is pro-life; they just needed to be convinced he wasn’t an extremist. If he seems moderate and reasonable then they’ll feel like they have permission to vote for him. All in all, McCain won the battle to most thrill the activists but Obama got the bigger prize: he defined himself as a reasonable seeker of the common ground..SPECIAL: WOULDA, COULDA ADDENDUM: For pro-lifers, McCain’s big lost opportunity was to point out that Obama’s support of the Freedom of Choice Act would wipe out many centrist abortion restriction laws, undermining Obama’s “abortion reduction” efforts. For pro-choicers, Obama’s big lost opportunity was failing to paint McCain as an abortion “extremist” by tethering him to the Republican platform, which calls for a ban on all abortion, including in cases of rape and incest.Plus: The transcript of the abortion portion of the debate.

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posted October 16, 2008 at 2:27 am

The Roe v. Wade decision was based on the privacy issue and the laws against abortion were unconstitutional under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Obama has previously said he believes that the Constitution has a right to privacy. He taught Constitution Law for many years (12 ?).
Supporting Medicaid funding for abortions is also based on the Constitution.
McCain’s statements about selecting Supreme Court Judges lost points with the right. His statement and the way he said that the health of a woman should not be considered for abortion lost points with many people, especially with women.
Republicans have been successfully fooling voters for 35 years about making abortion illegal.

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posted October 16, 2008 at 10:36 am

I missed the first hour of the debate, but I did see the part on the above YouTube, and after. I have to say that I find myself very much put off by McCain’s demeanor, shown in the split screen. Is he at all aware of the superior, condescending smirk he wears when Obama is talking? I have to say that on presentation alone, at least in the latter part of the debate, Obama cleaned up last night. He looked cool, composed and respectful. McCain did not. I’ve heard pundits say that John McCain genuinely personally dislikes Obama. It’s all but impossible to know that for sure, but it certainly appears that way. It’s obvious at least that he has no respect for him. To show that so clearly is a bad quality in a president. Those committed to each candidate were not swayed either way last night. Those uncommitted will likely now vote for Obama, having seen McCain’s peevish and petty demeanor.

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posted October 16, 2008 at 10:49 am

There are about 60% of the voting public that is “gray” on abortion – they think it should be “mostly” legal or “mostly” illegal; they never use emphatic modifiers “always” or “never”.
IOW, they are not hard-core partisans about it and anyone who can appeal to their centrism will get their votes.
Obama seems to have done that, McCain did not.
I agree with the other poster, Jim, that the GOP has been playing we pro-lifers like fish on a line for 35 years, and the pro-life folks have little to show for it. IMO, it’s time to stop fooling ourselves, realize that we are never going to outlaw abortion, outlawing it would be a disaster anyway, and should now look to who would best reduce the causes for abortion in the US as the positive pro-life position…for my money, it would be candidates like Obama’s.

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posted October 16, 2008 at 11:20 am

Sen. Obama handled himself exceptionally well at all points in this exchange. Sen. McCain, on the other hand, used this as an opportunity to start flinging red meat to the anti-choice base, two hands at a time, like a child in a snowball fight.
He could not have projected a more insulting, offensive image than his scare-quoting of “health of the mother” if he tried.

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posted October 19, 2008 at 11:28 pm

This is such a divisive issue and frankly I’m tired of all the tension it has caused between friends, family members and neighbors. I abhor abortion and it is something I would never choose for myself. However I realize not everyone is like me.
Recent studies from the Guttmacher Institute reveal that abortions among teens and college students are decreasing but increasing among single, black, low income women. Often these women do not have the necessary mental, physical or spiritual resources to prevent an unwanted pregnancy or to choose another option besides abortion. Poverty is NOT limited to lack of physical possessions and lack of money, POVERTY INCLUDES lack of education, lack of emotional support, lack of spiritual and moral guidance.
I believe the goal to drastically reduce the number of abortions by educating and helping poor women instead of prosecuting them for a crime is a Christian thing to do. If abortion becomes illegal, the teaching moment will be lost and these same women will put their health at risk by going underground for unsafe abortions they believe will solve their very complex and difficult problems-perhaps statistics will change but reality will not. These women may be misguided but they are not criminals. I know first hand that many go on to live good lives and become loving and caring mothers.
The moral essence of the situation remains between a women and her conscience.
Personally I believe that education is key to ending abortion. We’ve wasted precious time trying to make abortion a political and legal issue. I believe it is futile to keep trying the same thing over and over again when nothing changes. I’m willing to try Barack Obama’s ideas for drastically reducing abortions by making pro-life a health, education and moral issue. It will be interesting to see the results in four years and I expect many people will be surprised when abortion statistics decline.

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posted December 7, 2010 at 6:09 pm

I just wanted anyone’s opinion on if I was in the wrong here, and what any of you guys would have done in this situation. So my wife is quite liberal and I’m more on the conservative side, and she’s about 3 months pregnant. She can’t work right now, so I’ve been forced to support her as of late. The thing is that about a week ago she started asking me if she could borrow $400, and being pretty secretive about the reason why. I soon found out that $400 was the average cost of a back alley abortion, which is ridiculous considering that she knows how vehemently pro-life I am. After refusing to give her the money and the countless hours of arguing that ensued, I ended up making a comment about how if she wanted to do something liberal with $400, she should take advantage of Obummer’s internet recovery act,” so that “instead of murdering our kid, he can have satellite internet at a smashing price!” (I linked it so you can actually see it’s about $400 in taxpayer money that our President chose to waste on this crap, aren’t I so funny hah). The messed up part is that she went and told her dad, who happens to be just as liberal as her, and who also happens to own the house that we’re renting. To make a long story short, my tenancy has been “suspended” from his house (I’m now staying at my buddy’s place until this thing blows over) and he gave her the money to get the abortion. I haven’t talked to her in almost a week, so it’s pretty safe to say that she has already gone through with it. So my question is, do you think I was being inappropriate for mocking my wife and father in law’s political ideologies, or do you think I’m being unfairly persecuted because of my relative conservatism, and the Obummer joke I made has little to nothing to do with this? I’m thinking the latter.

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