Life Sentence

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AUGUST 27, 2008

Life Sentence

Research support for this article was provided by the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.

John McCain was mad. Fuming mad. It was then the early days of his political career, and he had paid an unscheduled visit to a Planned Parenthood clinic in Mesa, which was within his Arizona congressional district. That's when Gloria Feldt, then the CEO of the group's local chapter, got a phone call. "Congressman McCain is here," a staffer told her, "and he is screaming and it is upsetting the patients."

Feldt says McCain had always refused her offers to visit a clinic, but had apparently decided to make a spot visit of his own. What had raised his ire was a shelf containing information about Title X federal funding, which some clinics receive to support non-abortion-related reproductive health care for low-income women. McCain was upset that the clinic provided paper for people to write their representatives in support of the legislation, which requires constant advocacy because Congress must reauthorize it every year. "His immediate and incorrect assumption," says Feldt, "was that we were using federal funds to pay for lobbying." Feldt got on the phone. "He was screaming, 'I am going to defund her, I am going to get the federal government to defund you.'... [H]e rants and he raves and finally he hangs up on me."

Most voters would not recognize that passionate crusader as John McCain. Which is hardly surprising. McCain has spent years manipulating the public's perception of his stance on abortion and reproductive health. He's been against overturning Roe v. Wade and he's been for it; he's embraced the idea of a pro-choice running mate and, more recently, recoiled from it. It's no wonder the public is confused.

The right has been twisted in knots for years over whether McCain respects "life" enough to earn its support. And, among Democrats and pro-choicers, the confusion is even greater. Poll after poll shows them unclear on McCain's positions. Planned Parenthood's president Cecile Richards says that, even after McCain secured the Republican nomination this year, long-time Planned Parenthood supporters she met with didn't know the candidate's position on Roe v. Wade. McCain's maverick reputation and his calculated political meanderings on choice add up to one thing: The public thinks McCain just might be a moderate on abortion.

The fact that he's not could matter a great deal in the election. According to one poll, about half of all women voters backing McCain said they were pro-choice, including 36 percent who say they strongly support Roe. More importantly, these women voters think that McCain might agree with them on abortion. The same research found that "more than seven in ten pro-choice McCain supporters ... have yet to learn that McCain's position on abortion is directly at odds with their own." And the issue is not that they don't care. One June poll found that, when Democratic women voters in twelve battleground states learned McCain's position on abortion, Obama gained twelve points among them.

McCain's views may matter especially to Hillary Clinton supporters, many of whom are pro-choice; according to syndicated columnist Froma Harrop, "[T]hey'll want to know this: Would McCain stock the Supreme Court with foes of Roe v. Wade?" But, she writes, "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."

That, however, is simply not true. There is no "latitude" in McCain's position on abortion. Interviews with dozens of people who have dealt with him on the issue--pro-choice and pro-life activists, Hill staffers, McCain confidants, pollsters, and staffers--along with a two-and-a-half-decade-long perfectly anti-abortion voting record, make that clear. And his record on related issues, like contraception, is no better. "I think it is outrageous that people give him a pass, as they gave George W. Bush a pass," reflects Feldt. "John McCain will be that and worse."

 

The confounding problem with Mr. Straight Talk is that his public statements on abortion have been anything but straight. This meandering began most seriously in 1999, as McCain made his first bid for the presidency. On the eve of that campaign he told the San Francisco Chronicle that he'd "love to see a point where [Roe] is irrelevant, and could be repealed because abortion is no longer necessary. ... But certainly in the short term, or even the long term, 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." That same year, he suggested that Republicans revert to the language of the party's 1980 platform, which affirmed GOP support of a constitutional amendment to defend the unborn, but also "recognize[d] differing views on this question among Americans in general--and in our own Party." McCain said, "I believe we are an inclusive party, and we can be so without changing our principles." He also told reporters that if his then-15-year-old daughter got pregnant, they would make "a private decision that we would share within our family and not with anyone else"--a response that to some ears sounded a lot like code for the right to privacy and abortion. McCain even said he would consider a pro-choice running mate.

It was ideologically moderate but politically dangerous positions like these that earned McCain his reputation as a "maverick"--and that got him creamed by the GOP's right-wing base. The National Right to Life Committee helped destroy him in the all-important South Carolina primary, running ads that said, "If you want a strongly pro-life president ... don't support John McCain."

So, this time around, McCain has swerved sharply to the right. The campaign website of the same man who, eight years ago, said Roe shouldn't be overturned now says, "John McCain believes Roe v. Wade is a flawed decision that must be overturned, and as president he will nominate judges who understand that courts should not be in the business of legislating from the bench." He sent heartfelt words to the National Right to Life Committee's annual convention: "I am pro-life," he told them, "because I know what it is like to live without human rights, where human life is accorded no inherent value. And I know that I have a personal obligation to advocate human rights wherever they are denied ... when we fail to respect the inherent dignity of all human life, born or unborn. " McCain's advisers have said that he will not fight to soften the Republican platform on abortion, and McCain himself has said that it would be "difficult" to choose a pro-choice running mate.

To many voters, the McCain of 2000 is the true McCain, with his latest statements constituting an understandable, if undignified, pander to the GOP's right-wing base. They simply cannot believe that the maverick who defied the party's hard-core social conservatives on embryonic stem cell research and campaign finance reform would toe the conservative line on abortion. But, in truth, it was his 2000 position on abortion that was the outlier--a short-lived attempt to court the center after George W. Bush had locked up the religious right's support. McCain is not, and never was, a moderate.

 

During his political career, McCain has participated in 130 reproductive health-related votes on Capitol Hill; of these, he voted with the anti-abortion camp in 125. McCain has consistently backed rights for the unborn, voting to cover fetuses under the State Children's Health Insurance Program and supporting the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, which allowed a "child in utero" to be recognized as a legal victim of a crime. He has voted in favor of the global gag rule, which prevents U.S. funds from going to international family-planning clinics that use their own money to perform abortions, offer information about abortion, or take a pro-choice stand. And he has voted to appoint half a dozen anti-abortion judges to the federal bench, as well as Samuel Alito, John Roberts, Clarence Thomas, and Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. During the Bork hearings, McCain attacked the Court's creation of a right to privacy in Roe v. Wade: "Whether one is pro-or anti-abortion," McCain said in an October 1987 hearing, "it is difficult to argue that the Court's opinion is not constitutionally suspect."

Some of these votes were, politically speaking, no-brainers for anyone vaguely in the pro-life camp. But McCain also joined efforts supported only by the radical wing of his party. He voted, for instance, with only one-fifth of the Senate to remove family-planning grants from a 1988 spending bill and with only 18 senators that same year against allowing Medicaid to pay for abortions in cases of rape or incest.

In 1994, the year after abortion provider David Gunn was killed outside a Florida clinic, McCain voted with 29 members of the Senate against establishing penalties for violent or threatening interference outside abortion clinics. Many solidly pro-life Republicans--Mitch McConnell, Kit Bond, John Danforth--voted in favor of the bill, called the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act (FACE). "We tried to get as many co-sponsors as we could, and we postured the thing as anti-vigilante violence," recalls Judy Appelbaum, a Washington lawyer who was counsel to Senator Edward Kennedy at the time and the lead Hill staffer on the bill. "We argued that, even if you oppose abortion, you should not condone these actions." According to Appelbaum, law enforcement officials, newspaper editorialists, health care providers, and law-and-order politicians all supported the bill. "There were a number of very anti-choice senators who voted for FACE," she says, "and [McCain] wasn't one of them." Instead, McCain joined senators like Orrin Hatch and Jesse Helms in opposition.

Conservative writer Charlotte Allen summarized McCain's congressional career well last year in The Weekly Standard, noting, "[He] has never failed to cast his vote in favor of whatever abortion restrictions are arguably permitted under Roe v. Wade: bans against partial-birth abortion, abortions on military bases, transporting minors across state lines to obtain abortions behind their parents' backs, and government funding for abortion both in the United States and abroad. ... In addition, McCain has voted to confirm every 'strict constructionist' judge ... appointed by the various Republican presidents who have served during his tenure." And, she added, "Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America...consistently award him ratings of absolute zero on their scorecards."

 

The record, however, doesn't seem to be enough to convince the electorate that McCain's votes honestly represent his beliefs. But, as I learned on a recent trip to Arizona, people who have known McCain for years confirm that when it comes to abortion, he's a true, if quiet, believer.

My first stop in Phoenix was the office of Grant Woods, who served as McCain's chief of staff during his first term in the House, helped with his campaigns throughout the 1980s, and is now a member of his Arizona Leadership Team. "I am very familiar with his position [on abortion]," reflected Woods, a cowboy-style lawyer, slow-talking and casual, who said that he embraces the true conservative position--that a woman should make her own decision rather than having the government make it for her. "It was one on which I disagreed with him from the beginning." Like many voters today, Woods said he "wondered about the depth of [McCain's] commitment to that position initially because I had the impression that it wasn't something that he'd given a lot of thought to. " But, over the years, he continued, "I was completely convinced that this was a very sincere position that he had thought through and arrived at." Woods recalled a number of conversations with McCain, including one "up in the mountains late at night," in which the lawyer suggested that reasonable minds could differ. "When we really explored it, it really came down [for] him to a sanctity-of-life question. ... He did get very emotional one time we talked about it. He truly believed."

The next day, I headed down to Tucson and spent most of the day in the gracious, pink adobe-style Arizona Inn. In the antique-filled sitting room, Dennis DeConcini, who served eight years in the Senate with McCain and got caught, with McCain, in the Keating Five scandal, was holding court, dishing his dislike for his fellow senator to this reporter and, he said, to others who were coming later in the day. He talked about McCain's furious temper, his lack of friends in the Senate, and his unwillingness to go to bat for Arizona. He said that, knowing the candidate as well as he does, "I don't think he would be a good president." But, if there's anything remotely positive that the anti-abortion DeConcini would say about McCain, it's this: "I think he's pro-life because he just can't be anything else. I think he's there."

And so it went through McCain's Arizona associates. Freddy Hershberger, who ran Barry Goldwater's Tucson office and herself served in the state legislature as a pro-choice Republican in the '90s, told me that, when she once said something which suggested that McCain shared her views on abortion, "He immediately said that nothing could be further from the truth...He all but smacked me down." Deb Gullett, who was McCain's chief of staff in the early '90s and was his top aide during the 2000 presidential campaign, is strongly pro-choice and a force for moderate Republicanism in Arizona. She believes McCain has a "fundamental pro-life position" and said that she never pushed him on the issue. "What would be the point of belaboring the discussion?"

Carolyn Gerster, an elderly but still practicing doctor who helped found Arizona Right to Life and the National Right to Life Committee, recalled meeting with McCain when he was first in the House. The meeting was supposed to last 30 minutes, but the pair spoke for two hours. She says McCain has always been available when she's asked for his time and cites his support for embryonic stem cell research and campaign finance reform as the only times he's disturbed his pro-life record. Another prominent anti-abortion activist, John Jakubczyk, gave me a copy of a 1982 Arizona Right to Life dinner program in which McCain placed an ad and showed me a folder thick with letters from McCain; he explained that the Arizona pro-life community endorsed McCain, during his first run for office, over other anti-abortion candidates because it thought he was most likely to win, because it trusted his pro-life views, and because it believed he would be effective in pursuing its agenda.

 

Despite all this evidence, McCain's anti-abortion fervor hasn't registered with the public--in no small part because, in addition to his waffling on choice in the 2000 campaign, he hardly sounds like a true believer on other reproductive-health-related issues. When pressed to speak about them, he often evinces stunning ignorance, a fact that helps reassure the moderate middle that he could not possibly be as conservative as his record suggests. In early July, for example, a reporter raised the issue of whether it was "unfair" that insurance companies cover Viagra but not birth control. His response was painful to watch: "I certainly do not want to discuss that issue," he said immediately. She then asked about his votes against legislation requiring insurance plans to cover prescription birth control, legislation the anti-contraception right strongly opposed. He rubbed his mouth, rolled his eyes, flexed his fingers, crossed his arms, and more, before admitting, "I don't know enough about it to give you an informed answer." Finally, he told the reporter that he did not recall how he voted. "It's something that I had not thought much about," he added.

At another press conference, when a journalist asked him whether he thought contraceptives help stop the spread of HIV, he paused--for much too long--then answered, "You've stumped me." The reporter asked whether U.S. taxpayer money should fund contraception to prevent aids in Africa. "I'm not very wise on it," McCain said. What about grants for sex education? A long pause, then, "Ahhh. I think I support the president's policy." And, when the reporter pressed again, he finally said (after a reported twelve-second pause), "I've never gotten into these issues before"--an odd statement, given that he has voted on legislation related to all of them.

Clearly, these were not the responses of a devoted social conservative. What's more, on a few notable occasions, McCain has outright defied the right wing. The most prominent of these was his ongoing support, throughout the '90s, of embryonic stem cell research, on which he believed Congress had to "act affirmatively to support research to save lives." People who know him say that his support was a response to watching his friend and mentor Representative Morris Udall suffer from Parkinson's and that he believed his position was entirely consistent with his pro-life view. His leadership on campaign finance reform also infuriated social conservatives, who feared they would lose lobbying power, though that clearly wasn't McCain's intention.

But the public should not be distracted by these deviations from right-wing orthodoxy. McCain may or may not truly understand the broader definition of "pro-life," which these days also includes opposition to traditional and emergency contraception, family-planning, euthanasia, and related federal funding both here and abroad. (Playing the bumbling fool and satisfying no one is certainly an easier escape than trying to satisfy all.) But, as on abortion, both data and anecdote show there is little latitude in his positions. He has voted to end the Title X family-planning program, which pays for everything from birth control to breast cancer screenings and which is a target for the right because the recipients of these dollars also tend to be clinics that offer contraception to unwed and underage women and that offer abortions. He has backed largely discredited abstinence-only education, voting in 1996 to take $75 million from the Maternal and Child Health Block Grant to establish such a program; ten years later, he voted against teen-pregnancyprevention programs. He has supported parental notification laws governing not only abortion but contraception for teens, and, though he didn't want to talk to the press about it, he's voted against requiring insurance companies to cover birth control. In international family affairs, McCain has voted not only in favor of the global gag rule, but also to defund the United Nations group that provides family-planning services (not abortions) for poor women, and to spend a third of overseas HIV/AIDS prevention funds on abstinence education.

Moreover, say advocates, he is not open to dialogue. "Whether it's abortion care, birth control, or comprehensive sex education, McCain is not moderate or a maverick," says Donna Crane, policy director of NARAL Pro-Choice America and a key lobbyist on these questions. "We never ask--and we never hear pro-choice Republicans question--whether McCain will be with us on a vote. He's always on the wrong side."

Gloria Feldt says that, during her time in Arizona and later as president of the national Planned Parenthood Federation of America, her staff never tried to talk to McCain about abortion, but they did approach him about family-planning. He always refused to meet with them; he even refused to meet prominent Republicans on the Planned Parenthood board. "When I went to his D.C. office, I would be put into his waiting room forever and ever and ever, and eventually a staff person would come out and put me off, and finally I just gave up," Feldt recalls.

Sharlene Bozack was public affairs director for Planned Parenthood of Central and Northern Arizona between 1989 and 1995. One day, she came to D.C. for PPFA's annual day of lobbying and encountered McCain on the Hill. "I relive it every time I see the man on TV," she told me over the phone from Phoenix. She and Feldt had run into McCain, introduced themselves, and asked if they could speak with him. He agreed, and they got on the train that runs between Capitol buildings. Bozack was talking to him about international contraception access. Suddenly, she recalls, he was no longer calm, cool, and collected. "He turned toward me and put his index finger out and started pounding me in the chest saying, 'You know my position on this,' and 'How dare you ask me about this,' and 'You are just trying to intimidate me.'"

 

So as not to alienate the Clinton middle--and perhaps in order to keep his foot out of his mouth--McCain has not voluntarily spoken on the campaign trail about many issues dear to social conservatives. (The McCain campaign did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story.) Instead, he has used one issue--judicial nominations--as his proxy. In a May campaign speech at Wake Forest University, McCain slammed "judicial activism"--a common barb among social conservatives--and promised to restore "humility" to the federal courts and to nominate Supreme Court justices in the mold of Samuel Alito and John Roberts.

McCain also created a 48-person Justice Advisory Committee that would, in theory, help a President McCain select nominees to the federal and Supreme courts. That committee features a host of legal minds from the Reagan, Bush 41, and Bush 43 administrations. Its headline names include senators Sam Brownback, Jon Kyl, and Trent Lott, all of whom have thoroughly pro-life pedigrees. Other members include William Barr, who wrote a Department of Justice opinion in 1992 opposing the Freedom of Choice Act on both anti-abortion and federalist grounds; Charles Cooper, who under Reagan headed the Office of Legal Counsel, where he helped draft regulations that would prevent family-planning clinics that take federal funds from providing abortion counseling; Charles Fried, solicitor general under Reagan, who helped write a lengthy administration brief in Thornburgh v. ACOG that made the case for overturning Roe on anti-abortion and states-rights grounds; and Thomas Merrill, who was U.S. deputy solicitor general and co-author of the Reagan administration's amicus brief in Webster v. Reproductive Health Services asking the Court to overturn Roe. No member of the committee who has been active on reproductive health issues represents a pro-choice or even a moderately pro-life position.

It is clear that McCain is taking no chances with the right this time around. The question is whether pro-choice voters are going to take a chance on McCain. "No matter where he might have been," says Planned Parenthood's Richards, "it's pretty clear where he is now." And what is pretty clear now is not half as clear as it would become were he elected president.

Sarah Blustain is a Senior Editor at The New Republic

 

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