Republican presidential candidate John McCain is a conservative with a solid pro-life record: he favors the repeal of Roe v. Wade and has cast more than a dozen Senate votes to restrict or eliminate abortion. Yet this week the National Right to Life Committee is running radio ads in South Carolina that declare, "If you want a strongly pro-life president, then on February 19, don't support John McCain."

Why? It's got nothing to do with abortion. At stake is something far more important to many interest groups: money.

McCain supports campaign finance reform, something the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) adamantly opposes. Go to the group's website and you'll find almost as much about the evils of finance reform as about the need to limit abortion. Campaign finance reform, the Right to Life Committee says, "is strongly opposed by many groups, but especially organizations such as NRLC, the Christian Coalition and the NRA."

Campaign finance reform would impede fund-raising and threaten the income of Right to Life Committee staffers. Because of this, the NRLC has been denouncing McCain for years: in 1998, for instance, it wrote to all of the nation's Catholic bishops, blasting him. Now, as the nomination campaign gets serious, the Right to Life Committee is stepping up its attacks, while lauding McCain's rival George W. Bush.

Campaign finance reform would impede fund-raising and threaten the income of Right to Life Committee staffers.

On their abortion records, Bush and McCain appear all but identical. But Bush is a fund-raising virtuoso who has vowed to block any campaign finance reform. Lately Bush campaign strategists have been telling reporters that the pro-life lobby is their secret weapon against McCain. Last week the NRLC pressured South Carolina Citizens for Life, an affiliate group, to denounce McCain and endorse Bush. On Monday Don Griffith, a board member of South Carolina Citizens for Life, resigned to protest what he termed anti-McCain "coercion" by the National Right to Life Committee.

McCain is hardly the only pro-life conservative to incur the NRLC's fury for advocating fund-raising reform. Congressman Asa Hutchinson, a pro-life Republican from Arkansas and one of the "House managers" who presented the impeachment case against President Clinton, has been targeted for defeat by the NRLC, and by Arkansas Right to Life, because he cosponsored a bill that would have regulated campaign donations. Congressmen Marion Berry of Arkansas, Tony Hall of Ohio, Ronnie Shows of Mississippi, and Zach Wamp of Tennessee are other pro-life members of Congress who have incurred the NRLC's wrath because of campaign finance reform, not abortion issues.

But in McCain's case, because presidential politics are involved, the underhandedness of the NRLC's assault is the most intense. Rather than run ads saying, "We oppose campaign finance reform"--a fair enough political position but one that makes the NRLC sound greedy--the group is denouncing McCain as not pro-life. Afraid to be honest about its true concerns, the National Right to Life Committee is instead engaging in political character assassination.

Why is the National Right to Life Committee so touchy about campaign finance reform? Most proposals, including McCain's, would restrict "soft" money. "Hard" campaign donations go directly to candidates, and are capped at $1,000 per donor. "Soft" donations go to groups that lobby for candidates but are not directly controlled by them, and on this type of funds there are no restrictions. The National Right to Life Committee is a leading recipient of soft money, which it uses in part to support candidates such as Bush. If the McCain reform were enacted, donations to the NRLC would almost certainly decline.

The amounts at stake are not inconsequential. At present the NRLC has a $12 million lobbying budget, most of it financed by soft money. In the weeks before the 1996 election, the Republican National Committee gave $650,000 to the NRLC to run ads supporting Republican candidates. For the 2000 election, the figures may be much higher, as the Republican Party has already collected $58 million in soft money, with many more months of fund-raising ahead. If Bush wins the Republican nomination, millions in soft-money contributions to his party will likely flow to the NRLC. If McCain wins, that may not happen. (Today the NRLC formally endorsed Bush--a financial as much as a policy decision.)

There are legitimate questions about whether soft-money regulation would unfairly restrict free speech: whether money is the same thing as speech is a conundrum with a long, complicated legal history. (The tax history of these questions is simpler: because the NRLC engages in political lobbying, most donations to the organization are not tax-deductible. This is a point the organization soft-pedals. If you've been giving to the National Right to Life Committee and writing it off, now would be a good time to file amended tax returns.)

Because McCain's plan for campaign finance reform would imperil the NLRC's purse, the committee wants to discredit McCain. And is it ever trying.

Recently the NRLC accused McCain of "slander" because he mentioned pro-life violence, saying on ABC's "Good Morning America," "I want the repeal of Roe v. Wade, but I also want to change the dynamics of this debate, which has kept us gridlocked into positions which cause people to shoot at abortion clinics and other Americans to view it as the only issue in American politics."

Recently the NRLC accused McCain of "slander" because he mentioned pro-life violence.

The NRLC has complained, "McCain recently praised the record of Justice Sandra O'Connor, who voted to reaffirm Roe in 1992." (Perhaps the NRLC doesn't know that O'Connor, a Ronald Reagan appointee, is from Arizona, McCain's home state.) Adding insult to injury, the NRLC calls McCain "the candidate of the media elite." This is an interesting accusation considering that McCain's voting record is almost entirely conservative, while the standard accusation against the media elite is liberal bias.

For his part, McCain is becoming more openly opposed to the National Right to Life Committee as the campaign progresses. He has protested the NRLC's "inaccurate, indeed dishonest, arguments" and said the group's actions "discourage a great many pro-life Americans from supporting campaign finance reform." In South Carolina, the Arizona senator is now openly accusing the National Right to Life Committee of maneuvering against him for its own financial self-interest.

The likely outcome of the NRLC's heavy-handedness is to make the pro-life position look bad. Pro-choice groups, prominently the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, have made themselves look bad in recent years by opposing any restriction on late-term abortions, which are morally repulsive, except in the extremely rare instance when they're necessary to save the mother's life. Now the pro-life side is sacrificing the high ground and engaging in mudslinging politics, motivated not by principle but by the love of money--the National Right to Life Committee's desire to roll in dough, and its staff's eagerness to sustain its perks and income.

One of the long-standing complaints against Washington lobby organizations is that they become "single issue" interest groups, concerned only for their pet causes, not the greater good. When the single issue of the National Right to Life Committee was opposition to abortion, the NRLC was an interest group, to be sure, but one with a moral cause. Now the single issue of interest to the NRLC is cash. This is a common Washington conversation: ride into town demanding change, become established, forget the cause, focus on self-serving self-preservation.

Kind of makes you favor campaign finance reform.

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad