Skip to comments.Kucinich, Other Abortion-Issue Converts Viewed With Suspicion
Posted on 03/12/2007 3:24:51 AM PDT by markomalley
WASHINGTON -- He is indisputably the most liberal Democrat running for president in 2008. He wants the U.S. out of Iraq -- and fast. He supports national health insurance. He’s against the death penalty.
And Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich is for abortion rights. At least, now he is. As recently as five years ago, the Ohio Democrat was so far from liberal orthodoxy on abortion policy that he earned a 90 percent rating from the nation’s leading antiabortion advocacy group.
That journey underscores a rarely acknowledged fact about abortion, one of the most emotionally charged issues in American politics: Previous candidates for the nation’s highest offices have switched sides on this issue too. Among them have been such heavyweights as Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Al Gore and Richard Gephardt.
This year, Republicans are trying to come to grips with the 180-degree turn on abortion executed by Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who has become a top-tier presidential contender and the favorite of many GOP conservatives.
Romney until just a few years ago firmly supported abortion rights; he reversed field in 2004 and now calls himself “pro-life.” That has spurred a pressing debate among conservative Republicans over whether they can trust him to be a true champion of the antiabortion position.
As the history of abortion maneuvers show, voters have come to accept some changes of heart as sincere and durable. Reagan, for example, eventually became a hero of antiabortion activists even though, as California governor, he signed a law vastly expanding legal abortion.
But at other times, voters have viewed abortion converts -- whether they shifted to favor or oppose abortion rights -- as lacking commitment on a fundamental issue.
Gephardt abandoned a measure significantly restricting abortion, which endeared him to Democratic Party activists just before he ran for the 1988 presidential nomination. But the switch contributed to an unflattering view of him as a political opportunist without firm principles, which weakened him as a candidate.
A similar image dogged Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign, as he had also evolved from a conservative to a liberal position on abortion and other issues.
That is a cautionary tale for Romney. His abortion conversion faces especially deep skepticism because it is one of many issues -- including gay rights and gun control -- where he seems to have been inconsistent.
“It’s part of such a glaring pattern of flip-flops on issues across the board,” said Gary Glenn, president of the conservative American Family Association of Michigan. “You need a scorecard to keep up with Mitt Romney’s daily machinations on where he is today versus where he was yesterday.”
Among Republicans, Romney is not alone in drawing suspicion from abortion foes. Former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani is reviled by many activists for supporting abortion rights. And some conservatives worry that abortion is a low priority for Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in spite of the fact that he recently reaffirmed his support for overturning Roe v. Wade.
Still, no candidate has spent more time and energy addressing the issue than Romney. While he was a Senate candidate running against Democrat Edward M. Kennedy in Massachusetts, Romney portrayed himself as a committed supporter of abortion rights, as he did again when he ran successfully for governor in 2002.
But Romney says he was turned around in 2004 by the debate over embryonic stem cell research. A discussion with scientists about destroying human embryos for research, he says, led him to the broader conclusion that legalized abortion “cheapened the value and sanctity of human life.”
Trying to persuade skeptics that his change of heart is sincere, Romney likes to point to Reagan and other political leaders who underwent long-lasting abortion conversions.
As California governor, Reagan in 1967 signed one of the most liberal abortion laws in the country, legalizing the procedure in cases in which a woman’s mental or physical health was at risk. Reagan “agonized” over the legislation, recalled former Reagan aide Edwin Meese, and took a week out of his schedule to talk to doctors, clergymen and psychiatrists about the issue.
“On one hand, he felt that if a woman’s health was threatened, there would be reason to have an abortion. But at the same time, he did not want to open the door to abortion in general,” Meese said.
Reagan came to regret signing the bill, Meese said, primarily because the number of abortions skyrocketed in California under the rubric of protecting the “mental health” of women. Within a year, Reagan said the law was a mistake.
Years later, when conservatives were casting around for an alternative to Gerald R. Ford for the 1976 GOP nomination, Reagan made increasingly strong statements of opposition to abortion. His conversion helped position him as a darling of the Republican right and contributed to his surprisingly strong, if unsuccessful, showing in the GOP primary against Ford, who supported abortion rights.
By the time he ran for the White House a second time, Reagan was a clear champion of antiabortion forces. In 1979, he declared his support for a constitutional amendment prohibiting all abortions except to save the life of a woman.
That same presidential race featured a second prominent Republican who repositioned himself on abortion. During the 1980 primary campaign, Reagan faced George H.W. Bush, who opposed the constitutional amendment restricting abortion. But later, while he was Reagan’s vice president, Bush brought his views in line with Reagan and said he opposed all abortions unless the mother’s life was endangered.
Early in his career, Gephardt supported a constitutional amendment to severely restrict abortion. He had been elected to the House in 1976 from a heavily Catholic district. But in 1986 he changed that position, saying there was “no clear consensus in the country or the Congress to initiate an amendment.”
The shift may have contributed to the demise of his 1988 presidential campaign. One of the final blows came when a Democratic primary opponent ran an ad criticizing Gephardt’s shifts on abortion and other issues, illustrated by an acrobat flip-flopping across the screen.
Kucinich’s changing views on abortion have been little discussed in the 2008 campaign. But they were well noticed by the antiabortion activists who had counted him among their most reliable backers after he was elected to the House in 1996 from a district that was largely Catholic.
Kucinich declined to discuss the evolution of his views on abortion. But in the past he has rejected assertions that he moved left because he began running for president in 2004. He has continued to win re-election to Congress easily.
It may be harder for Romney to negotiate his shift on abortion with a national constituency that is just getting to know him. That is in part why he is relying heavily on testimonials from well known abortion opponents, such as James Bopp Jr., a national antiabortion leader.
“I believe it is sincere,” Bopp said of Romney’s conversion in a column for the National Review. “The simple question (is) whether social conservatives want someone who is currently on their side or someone who currently opposes them.”
OTOH, the Dems who were formerly pro-life and went pro-abort are not able to document such a rationale for their switches in positions.
Ping for your lists. Shows a history of flip-flopping by candidates of both sides.
Oh Lordy. They're all liars and opportunists, on both sides, anyone with half a brain knows it. We can say it matters because it reveals a lack of integrity, or we can say it doesn't matter because, as president, they'll act in accordance with their latest position. One way or the other, but please, enough with the "Republicans are genuine about their flip-flops and the Democrats arne't." These are politicians, folks. Get over it.
I just wish he would go away, tell me, how do the voters in his district feel about him, sound to me like he is slighting them.
No kidding. I'll neeed some proof on that one.