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Pro-Choice Democrats and John McCain

A Commentary By Froma Harrop

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Hillary Clinton's blessing notwithstanding, many of the New York senator's supporters will resist the handover to Barack Obama. The sexism that permeated the recent campaign still rankles, and John McCain is far from the standard-issue Republican they instinctively vote against.

A big sticking point for wavering Democrats will be McCain’s position on reproductive rights. Clinton's backers are overwhelmingly pro-choice, and they’ll want to know this: Would McCain stock the Supreme Court with foes of Roe v. Wade? The 1973 decision guarantees a right to abortion.

The answer is unclear but probably "no." While McCain has positioned himself as "pro-life" during this campaign, his statements over the years show considerable latitude on the issue.

In a 1999 interview with the San Francisco Chronicle editorial board, McCain said, "I would not support repeal of Roe v. Wade, which would then force X number of women in America" to undergo "illegal and dangerous operations."

George W. Bush turned that statement against him in the 2000 race for the GOP nomination. The National Right to Life Committee ran ads denouncing McCain -- one reason he lost the important South Carolina primary to Bush.

Addressing conservative South Carolinians last year, McCain said that Roe should be overturned. Primary politics or a change of mind? The former is my guess -- and also that in his current pursuit of Hillary Democrats we may see a softening of that position.

Whatever McCain really thinks, the chances that he would submerge his presidency in the maelstrom of abortion politics seem slim. Partisan battles over court nominees aren't his thing, either.

McCain played a central role in the Gang of 14 -- the seven Democratic and seven Republican senators who joined hands to find common ground on court appointments. For his efforts at compromise, McCain took a pummeling from the right wing. Note that Obama, the self-styled foe of division, declined to join the bipartisan group.

And if a President McCain did put forth a controversial candidate, the Democratic majority in the Senate -- sure to grow after the upcoming election -- would put a quick end to the idea. That's why McCain would probably choose a cipher, as had some of his Republican predecessors. Ronald Reagan gave us Sandra Day O'Connor, and George H.W. Bush picked David Souter. Both justices were essentially friendly to Roe.

Obama is no doubt pro-choice, but on the issue, he's hardly been a profile in courage. As an Illinois state senator, he famously voted "present" on anti-choice legislation. Voting "present" is a tactic used to express disapproval without actually taking a stand.

In February, Bonnie Grabenhofer, the president of the Illinois National Organization for Women (and a Clinton supporter) wrote: "We made it clear at the time that we disagreed with the strategy. ... Voting present doesn't provide a platform from which to show leadership and say with conviction that we support a woman's right to choose and these bills are unacceptable."

For someone representing Obama's very liberal Chicago district, there was zero danger in voting "no" on an anti-abortion bill. He almost certainly voted "present" as political cover should he run for higher office and need to appeal to a wider base of voters. And run for higher office he soon did.

Nowadays, most abortion fights center on regulations. The movement to ban the procedure outright suffered a disastrous blow in 2006, when the conservative voters of South Dakota threw out a state law written to do just that.

Curious Democrats will have many questions about the Arizona senator's positions on taxes, health care and war. But they need not obsess on what a McCain presidency would do to Roe. That is one war McCain is unlikely to wage.



Views expressed in this column are those of the author, not those of Rasmussen Reports.

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See Other Commentaries by Froma Harrop.

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