Kucinich’s Choice

by David Enrich

Does the presidential contender mean what he says on abortion?

If Dennis Kucinich has his way, he will use his long-shot presidential campaign to rail against war with Iraq and free-trade agreements like NAFTA. Conventional wisdom holds that if the Ohio congressman is to have any impact in the Democratic primary, it will be by pushing his more mainstream rivals to the left on war and trade issues.

But a less conspicuous issue — Kucinich’s shifting stances on abortion — could come out of the woodwork to haunt the candidate, and perhaps his party.

During his first three terms in Congress, Kucinich compiled a consistently pro-life voting record, earning a 95-percent rating from the National Right to Life Committee in 2000. “He absolutely believes in the sanctity of life and that life begins at conception,” Kucinich’s spokeswoman explained last year.

But the feisty 56-year-old Catholic, whose political career is littered with upset victories, has changed course. “I support a woman’s right to freedom of choice,” Kucinich says now. “I do not believe that Roe v. Wade should be overturned.” He vowed last week to an Iowa audience that “as president, I would protect that right [to abortion], and I would also make sure that appointees to the Supreme Court protected that right.”

Kucinich is following in the footsteps of Al Gore, Dick Gephardt, and other Democrats who flip-flopped on abortion shortly before launching presidential bids. Pro-choice groups are divided over whether the metamorphosis is genuine or a political ploy.

“He understands that this is a fundamental freedom. Do I think that’s sincere? Yes I do,” says Kate Michelman, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America. She says the transformations of Kucinich and past Democrats are “the opposite of being political. When they were being anti-choice, it was the political thing to do maybe. At that time, their position was expected of them to be anti-choice. I think they’ve thought a lot more about this issue and came to the decision after a great deal of thought and not as a reflex.”

Others are not so sure. Kucinich’s pro-choice makeover “is testament to the fact that he realizes the power of this issue, certainly within the Democratic camp,” says David Williams, political director of Planned Parenthood. “This is something that remains a very powerful issue and will in time emerge in the selection process of a Democratic candidate.” Williams says he isn’t persuaded by Kucinich’s recent pro-choice rhetoric.

Another possible sign that Kucinich’s morphing position could push abortion into Democratic debates: Democrats for Life, a national group, is urging members to contact Kucinich to tell him “to stick by his principles and continue his strong pro-life advocacy.”

Democrats could face growing pressure to confront the abortion question if Kucinich ever is seen as a relevant candidate. “The Kucinich position on abortion could have a real impact, but that assumes he becomes a factor,” says Larry J. Sabato, the head of University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “The other candidates are going to let him get away with anything unless he becomes a factor, in which case they will unload on him, and so will the press.” And Kucinich’s candidacy probably will fizzle out if the economy recovers and a war with Iraq doesn’t drag on.

But assuming that the war and economy are issues that resonate with Democrats this fall, protest candidates like Kucinich will not need outright victories to be successful. In Iowa, which holds its crucial first-in-the-nation caucuses in less than a year, Kucinich could exploit his strong labor ties to siphon votes away from Gephardt, widely considered the frontrunner in Iowa because of his 1988 victory and his union support. “If Kucinich gets two or three percent from Gephardt,” Sabato says, “it could cost him the caucuses” — and the campaign. That scenario might not trouble Kucinich, because Gephardt infuriated many Democratic doves when he endorsed last year’s congressional war resolution.

So far, Kucinich’s abortion transformation hasn’t received much attention from the media or Democratic activists in Iowa or elsewhere. The Des Moines Register, for example, has not mentioned his stand on abortion. But if his campaign gains traction, Kucinich’s voting record probably will become more important, forcing some Democrats to balance their opposition to war against their support for abortion rights.

“I think that would be a real stumbling block for a Democrat,” says Cary R. Covington, a political scientist at the University of Iowa. “The Democrats are trying to make domestic issues more prominent, so certainly if a candidate challenges one of the core constituencies of the party, that is something that would have to be resolved.”

Iowa caucus-goers “tend to be more liberal-leaning, which means that pro-life is not necessarily a position given much consideration,” says a Democratic-party official in Iowa. “His pro-life position is certainly going to hurt him among [unions'] rank and file.” At the same time, the official says, Kucinich’s abortion stance “may help him in other areas [such as Dubuque] where Catholic Democrats vote pro-life.”

Ultimately, the biggest impact of Kucinich’s handling of the abortion issue could be self-destructive, undercutting his from-the-heart appeal. “When he is forced to talk about [abortion], he’s going to mouth the word ‘choice,’” Sabato says. “He’s going to try to fuzz it up and let the war [issue] satisfy the left wing. This fellow isn’t exactly the straight-talker he says he is. “

— David Enrich, a reporter with States News Service, covers Washington for the Cleveland Plain Dealer and other Ohio newspapers.