What IS John McCain’s position on abortion and life issues? That may seem like an odd question. He has just appointed an antiabortion heroine to his ticket and approved the most antiabortion Republican platform ever. Surely if anything is certain in this shifting campaign it’s that John McCain is ardently against abortion.
Not if you go by his statements this past week.
On The View, he was asked about abortion, and said he wanted to overturn Roe v. Wade. That’s no change. But his emphasis was fascinating. First, he stressed that he would not impose a litmus test in favor of antiabortion (or abortion rights) judges. Then, instead of arguing that Roe needed to be overturned because abortion is wrong, he emphasized a states’ rights position – that the state government, not the Supreme Court, should decide.

Elisabeth Hasselbeck: “So it was in how Roe v. Wade came apart that’s the issue. You want it to be through the Constitution from the people not from the bench.”
Sen. McCain: “And I believe that if Roe v. Wade were overturned then the states would make these decisions.”

Later he said, “I had committed myself to a pro-life position because I happen to believe that life begins at conception, but that is an issue that I respect other people’s views on.” If you didn’t know better, you’d think he was saying he was antiabortion but wouldn’t impose that view on others.
Compare that to the Republican platform, which goes well beyond overturning Roe, endorsing a constitutional amendment to ban abortion in all 50 states, even in cases of rape and incest. Sen. McCain has said he supports the platform but mysteriously didn’t mention the ban during his comments on The View.
Delighting Conservatives at Saddleback
Or compare his View comments to what he said at Saddleback Church on Aug. 16 when he delighted the conservative crowd with his ardently antiabortion views – “I will be a pro-life president and this presidency will have pro-life policies” — and didn’t mention states’ rights at all.
In her interview with Charlie Gibson, Sarah Palin followed the lead of her ticket-mate, emphasizing that while she’s personally antiabortion, “states should be able to decide that issue.” She then uttered a few words that had been deemed utterly inappropriate by the Republican Party’s platform committee just two weeks ago. An early platform draft had included this olive-branch sentence: “We invite all persons of good will, whether across the political aisle or within our party, to work together to reduce the incidence of abortion.” Religious conservatives deleted the sentence, arguing that it sounded too much like Democratic candidate Barack Obama.

But there was Alaska Gov. Palin with the olive-branch, telling Mr. Gibson that she wanted to “reach out and work with those who are on the other side of this issue, because I know that we can all agree on the need for and the desire for fewer abortions in America.” (For full texts of their statements on abortion, http://blog.beliefnet.com/stevenwaldman/2008/09/mccainpalin-positions-on-abort.html click here and http://blog.beliefnet.com/stevenwaldman/2008/09/mccainpalin-positions-on-abort.htmlhere.)
Then there’s the confusing new advertisement about stem cell research. The Republican platform this year called for a ban on all embryonic stem cell research. But a new McCain-Palin ad declares: “John McCain will lead his congressional allies to improve America’s health. Stem-cell research to unlock the mystery of cancer, diabetes, heart disease. Stem-cell research to help free families from the fear and devastation of illness. Stem-cell research to help doctors repair spinal cord damage, knee injuries, serious burns. Stem-cell research to help stroke victims.”
Technically, the ad doesn’t specify whether he meant embryonic stem cell but usually when politicians hit stem-cell research so hard they mean embryonic unless they specify otherwise.
Stirring Up New Questions
These new statements leave new questions: if Roe were overturned and Congress passed a ban on abortion, would they sign it (being pro-life) or veto it (since they want the states to decide)? Do they still support the Republican Party’s position in favor of a 50-state ban on all abortion? Does he support embryonic stem cell research in contradiction to the Republican platform?
Sen. McCain hasn’t done a blatant flip-flop. But his emphasis has shifted significantly, over time and depending on the audience. He now seems to be in partial conflict with the Republican platform.
At the Republican convention, the Family Research Council’s Connie Mackey told me how surprised religious conservatives were when Sen. McCain chose Gov. Palin as his running mate. They figured that since they won on the platform, they’d lose on the vice president. Instead they got both. They were thrilled.
Sen. McCain’s comments this week raise a different possibility: that by embracing a sharply antiabortion platform and running mate, he now feels free to move to the center on abortion to appeal to independent and pro-choice voters. He’s betting that antiabortion activists are now so invested in the success of the McCain-Palin ticket that they will cut him slack.
So far, they have – providing a sweet tactical assist to Sen. McCain’s operatives.
But this strategy carries some risks. The religious conservatives are energized by Gov. Palin, but if Sen. McCain goes too far to the center, he’ll end up reminding religious conservatives why they hated him in the first place. Gov. Palin might come to be viewed less as the woman who would transform John McCain as the heroine who was turned into a temporizing hack by John McCain.
Reprinted from Political Perceptions on the Wall Street Journal Online.
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