Politics is a strange business, and abortion politics right now is especially strange. President Obama is on defense, denying on a daily basis the idea that the government would pay for abortions under his health reform plans. Across the Potomac River in Virginia, another Democrat is on offense -- hoping he'll be elected governor in part by highlighting his opponent's record of trying to restrict abortion rights.
Abortion didn't figure much in last month's confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, maybe because she doesn't change the liberal-conservative balance on the court. But it turns out that both sides of the political spectrum see abortion as an important weapon in the battles of autumn.
In Virginia, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Creigh Deeds is trying to paint Republican Bob McDonnell as a backward-looking candidate
who supports George W. Bush's social and economic policies, and crusaded against abortion for years while neglecting jobs, schools, education and transportation. That's the campaign theme Deeds planned to lay out in a speech Friday in the Northern Virginia suburbs.
Highlighting liberal views on abortion seems counter-intuitive, especially after a May Gallup Poll that found Americans were increasingly describing themselves as "pro-life." But as I wrote back then
, the term didn't necessarily mean they were anti-abortion. A new Gallup survey reveals a bottom line that supports the status quo
. Only 18 percent said abortion should be illegal in all circumstances. More than three-quarters said the procedure should be legal in all circumstances (21 percent) or in certain circumstances (57 percent).
Drawing distinctions on abortion has not hurt Democrats in the past few years and may have helped them. Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, says it helped four gubernatorial candidates in 2006 -- Jim Doyle in Wisconsin, Jennifer Granholm in Michigan, Ted Strickland in Ohio and Chet Culver in Iowa. "Women will cross party lines to vote for a candidate who supports choice," she told me. "That's clearly what Creigh Deeds' research is showing. It's really not unusual."
Playing Offense in Virginia
In the 2005 race for Virginia governor, Democrat Tim Kaine advertised his support for abortion rights and went on to win. Last year the Obama campaign spread word in Northern Virginia that GOP nominee John McCain, perceived by many as a moderate, was staunchly against abortion. "It definitely got traction," said former campaign aide Jessica Honke, now with the Virginia League for Planned Parenthood. Obama was the first Democrat to win the state since 1964.
McDonnell is contending these days, with some justification, that Deeds has broken a pledge to campaign on jobs and education rather than social issues. Deeds -- a state senator -- is contending, also with some justification, that McDonnell is trying to obscure his top priority as a state legislator -- to limit abortion.
These assertions are not mutually exclusive. The Washington Post editorial board wrote this month that the Deeds message "dents the moderate, pragmatic image" McDonnell has cultivated of late. Abortion "preoccupied him so much during his career as a lawmaker that he introduced some 35 bills to restrict access to the procedure," the editorial board said. McDonnell opposes all abortion, even in cases of rape or incest. He would ban morning-after pills at college health centers and let pharmacists refuse to give out contraceptives. Those positions, the paper said, "may not sit well with middle of the road voters in Northern Virginia and elsewhere."
McDonnell, a former state attorney general, told a local TV station that "I'm focusing on the economic issues during the campaign." Virginia politics blogger Ben Tribbett, a Democrat, posted the clip with this headline: "The Last Three Words Are Critical
." The post crystallized the doubts Deeds is trying to sow about what would really be important to McDonnell if he became governor.
McDonnell has been sticking to economics in his press releases and public events, as the Virginia GOP tweaks Deeds for having the wrong priorities.
Deeds does run the risk of being blamed for injecting a divisive issue into the race. But he's trailing McDonnell in state polls and even trails him in trust on the abortion issue
. A twin focus on abortion and economics could improve his standing with independents, particularly those who voted for Obama last year and whom polls show are now drifting toward the GOP. And, as Democrats have learned, it never hurts to mention Bush
: Deeds released his first TV ad
Friday -- he says he doesn't want the state to go backwards under Bush's "failed" economic policies).
Playing Defense in Washington
Part of Deeds' problem is Obama. The president's standing in Virginia is falling and his health reform drive is a huge target. Ironically, abortion is one reason it's a target. The Family Research Council is spending $500,000 on TV ads targeting senators -- most of them Democrats -- in Arkansas, Alaska, Louisiana, Nebraska and Pennsylvania, with expansion to other states possible. The group's first ad showed an elderly man telling his wife that "they won't pay for my surgery, but we're forced to pay for abortions." A narrator in the second ad says health reform would mean "your loved one denied surgery" and "your hard-earned dollars funding abortions." The tagline in both: "Our greatest generation, denied care. Our future generation, denied life."
It's a clever conflation of two threats to health reform -- largely unfounded fears
among the elderly that Medicare benefits will be cut, and an energized conservative base bent on preventing taxpayer-funded abortions. "We want to make sure that in no way tax dollars can slip through the back door for abortion, which is in our opinion the taking of lives," said Connie Mackey, president of the FRCAction Political Action Committee. She told me that's "another reason the government plan is unworkable."
Politifact ranks the abortion claim in the FRC ad as flat-out false
, as does Factcheck.org. If there is a public insurance plan, it would be financed with premiums paid by policy-holders
, just like a private plan, so no taxpayer money would be used. If low-income people get subsidies to buy a public or private plan, the money could not be used for an abortion. "There are no plans under health reform to revoke the existing prohibition on using federal taxpayer dollars for abortions," Obama told supporters Thursday. "Nobody is talking about changing that existing provision, the Hyde Amendment. Let's be clear about that. It's just not true."
Planned Parenthood is backing up the president -- and protecting its own interests -- by targeting senators with a TV ad in the same five states as the FRC ad. "With all the screaming, shouting and scare tactics, it's hard to know what's true about health reform," the spot says. Flashing a shot of the same elderly couple in the FRC ad, it continues: "Some groups want new restrictions on women's health care and to take away coverage American women have now. Planned Parenthood is working to protect our health . . ."
Richards predicted that the FRC ads will not sway senators but will mobilize religious conservatives. "You're seeing the right wing use this issue because it helps gin up their base," she said. Mackey said FRC is trying to prevent murder, not gin up its base. She drew a contrast with Deeds, saying he "uses it as a political issue."
This was where I thought, but didn't say, that there's a fine line -- sometimes no line -- between a sacred mission and a political maneuver. Just ask Obama, or McDonnell.