By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

McCain and abortion rights

Scott Helman’s story in today’s Globe about Republican flip-floppers only provides a hint of Sen. John McCain’s tortured history with respect to abortion rights. Helman, whose intent is to show that former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney is not the only GOP flip-flopper, writes this about McCain:

McCain has also made conflicting comments about whether he believes Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion, should be overturned. He told the San Francisco Chronicle in 1999 that he did not support a repeal. But earlier this year, speaking to about 800 people in Spartanburg, S.C., he sought to assure conservatives that he did.

“I do not support Roe versus Wade. It should be overturned,” McCain said, according to the Associated Press.

That’s true, as far as it goes. But McCain did not wait eight years to renounce his 1999 remarks about Roe v. Wade, as you might be led to believe from Helman’s article; in fact, he started backpeddling almost immediately. Yet even though McCain had been a pro-life conservative for his entire political career, he was never quite able to reassure the right during the 2000 presidential campaign. Every time he opened his mouth about abortion, he committed a gaffe, defined by Michael Kinsley as when a politician accidentally tells the truth.

Consider, for example, a Robert Novak column from Aug. 26, 1999, shortly after the Chronicle reported McCain’s seeming change of heart. (I couldn’t find the original Chronicle article.) Novak began thusly:

Perhaps spending the day with rich, liberal northern California Republicans, who cannot win elections but contribute lots of money, had its impact on Sen. John McCain. That is the only plausible explanation for his telling the San Francisco Chronicle editorial board last week that “certainly in the short term, or even the long term, I would not support repeal of Roe v. Wade.”

“It was a mistake, a terrible mistake,” a McCain adviser told me, contradicting his presidential campaign’s official line that the senator’s opposition to abortion had not diminished (using the old saw that his remarks were taken out of context). McCain spent the weekend trying to straighten out his position, and was still sculpting his language Tuesday, five days after his first remarks.

McCain’s mistake was explained privately by supporters as common to Republican politicians who don’t care much or know much about abortion. They try to please both grass roots, pro-life activists and the well-heeled, pro-choice campaign contributors, in abundance last Thursday when McCain addressed San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club. But it is a special problem for McCain. Waffling on abortion confirms his developing image as the most liberal Republican candidate, which might give him momentary pleasure as runner-up, but deny him ultimate satisfaction as the nominee.

McCain’s abortion problem was no mere slip in San Francisco. His staff knew he blundered and sought quick correction. Appearing Sunday on CNN’s “Late Edition,” he no longer mentioned “the long term,” but still opposed getting rid of Roe v. Wade “immediately.” That didn’t work either. Later that day, he issued a written statement: “I have always believed in the importance of the repeal of Roe v. Wade, and as president I would work toward its repeal.”

But in both Sunday’s CNN interview and his written statement he repeated the canard that immediate repeal “would force thousands of young women to undergo dangerous and illegal operations.”

After much polishing by his staff, McCain sent a letter to the Right to Life Committee on Tuesday, affirming his desire to overturn Roe v. Wade, with not one word about “dangerous and illegal operations.”

I caught a glimpse of McCain’s attempts to have it both ways in February 2000, when I spent several days following McCain and George W. Bush around South Carolina in the run-up to their pivotal primary. Among other things, McCain was desperately trying to stress his conservative credentials after allowing himself to be portrayed as a moderate in libertarian New Hampshire, where he had handily defeated Bush.

Unfortunately, I didn’t quote McCain on abortion rights, so I can’t report exactly what he said. But I did write this, about an appearance McCain made on MSNBC’s “Hardball” at Clemson University: “McCain stressed his archconservative stand on social issues including gay marriage (‘it’s crazy’), abortion rights (he hopes the Supreme Court will someday overturn Roe v. Wade), and affirmative action (he’s staunchly against quotas).”

As I also wrote at the time, McCain was in trouble with the right for answering a hypothetical question about his 15-year-old daughter’s becoming pregnant by saying it would be her decision whether to have an abortion. He later “corrected” it by saying it would be a family decision.

The point of Helman’s story in today’s Globe is certainly valid: McCain and Rudy Giuliani, no less than Romney, have changed their minds on key issues as they seek the Republican nomination for president. Romney himself went after his two chief rivals earlier this week; Helman cites an Associated Press report in which Romney criticized McCain’s one-time opposition to overturning Roe v. Wade. The former governor said:

Senator McCain voted against the Bush tax cuts. Now he’s for them. He was opposed to ethanol. Now he’s for it. He said he was opposed to overturning Roe v. Wade. Now he’s for overturning Roe v. Wade…. That suggests that he has learned from experience.

So why does the flip-flopper charge seem to stick to Romney more than it does to his rivals? Republican operative Roger Stone tells Helman:

I think you can certainly move your political positions within a career and even within a campaign, but when you trade in your old philosophy for a new one, and you did it overnight across the board, it smacks of opportunism.

Well, yeah. I don’t think I can recall a politician who has so conveniently and quickly done a 180 on a whole range of social and cultural issues in order to repackage himself for a different audience and a different audience. Yes, they all do it to some degree, but Romney is unique in his thoroughness, moving from socially moderate — even liberal — to ultraconservative virtually overnight.

McCain is another matter. Eight years ago he failed in his attempts simultaneously to appease conservatives and moderates. This time, he’s falling short in his efforts to move to the right and stay there. Of course, as McCain himself has said repeatedly, he probably has no chance unless the war in Iraq — his main issue — starts to look like a winner. Sadly, there doesn’t seem to be much chance of that.

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  1. Don

    Women have always had the right to choose. They should exercise it before they become pregnant.

  2. Anonymous

    It’s amazing how labels stick to people in politics, positive as well as negative ones. People will be calling McCain a straight-talker for the rest of his life and beyond, no matter how many times he has to put his foot in his mouth. I can’t explain why, but whereas most politicians are pilloried for reversing course or misspeaking, with McCain it’s just another sign of how forthright he is. Just this weekend I read a post by Andrew Sullivan saying it was good to have “the old McCain” back. He is “again saying what he believes.” David Broder got in on the act last week as well, with a column titled “Straight Talking Again.” All because McCain, after months and months of swearing up and down that things in Iraq were going great, has suddenly changed his mind.Is there another politician in the country who could get away with this? How is this substantively different than “I voted for it before I voted against it?” Dude outright admits that he’s said something for politically expedient reasons, and the pundits say it’s another example of his straight talk.

  3. Dan Kennedy

    Anon: I think you’ve got to give McCain credit for being absolutely resolute on the war in Iraq. He was wrong then and he’s wrong now, but he’s never wavered. His problem is that he really doesn’t care about domestic issues, and thus will say anything that he thinks is expedient at the moment.

  4. man who's not a McCain - or Romney - fan

    Hey Don, tell that to rape victims. I guess is simple enough for you to use, too.Anyways, Dan…I suspect part of the reason why Romney is getting hit so hard with the “flip flopper” label is because he’s most recently from Massachusetts. If Kerry hadn’t been a presidential candidate in 2004, Romney might be getting some press as a person who’s inexcusably “reinventing” himself overnight, but it wouldn’t get the same distance that the memorable “flip flopper” label gets.It’s almost like the rest of the country is saying “Don’t those idiots in Massachusetts ever learn?????”

  5. MeTheSheeple

    Slate’s Fred Kaplan seems to have nailed it (linked via John McCain has been careening his Straight-Talk Express all over the highway in recent months, but late last week, he finally slammed it into the guardrail, plunged over the cliff, and went splat in the big muddy.He used to have integrity, I thought.

  6. Neil

    I was about to link to the Fred Kaplan article then realized that methesheeple had already done so above. To the point that McCain has been resolute about the Iraq war, Kaplan says that in his recent Times interview McCain reveals that he is “playing to both sides of the issue”, and “doesn’t even accept responsibility for his equivocation”. Essentially:…he’s a stalwart for the war as long as he has to appeal only to hard-core Republicans (who still support the war)—yet he’ll accede to reality (and the views of the broader American public) after he’s cleared that hurdle and won the party’s nomination.It’s worth a look.

  7. Don

    Hey, Man who’s. . . One exception. Even the Catholic Church might go along with that one.

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