On the abortion question, Fred Thompson has so far managed to gain the trust of pro-lifers without actually saying anything about either principle or policy—what specifically he believes, or what kind of laws or rules he might support or oppose. He’s done it by reference to his Senate record (a record pro-lifers find appealing, with good reason), by criticizing Roe v. Wade (which is like shooting fish in a barrel, but is done rarely enough that it’s no small thing), and by some vague but welcome platitudes (his video to the National Right to Life convention is a good example of that one). There’s not necessarily anything wrong with this approach—even most firmly pro-life politicians don’t like to talk about abortion much, and shouldn’t. But the approach does breed a certain paranoia and mistrust to which the pro-life movement is already thoroughly inclined to begin with.
The story of Thompson’s lobbying for a pro-abortion group in favor of allowing federally funded family planning clinics to advise patients to have abortions will almost certainly make it impossible for him to sustain that approach to the issue. He has already tried the two responses that might have sustained his vagueness: first his campaign denied the facts of the story (telling the LA Times “Fred Thompson did not lobby for this group, period”), and then Thompson argued that a lawyer can’t be held responsible for his clients.
Today’s NY Times story makes it pretty clear the facts are true—which should make us worry about the Thompson team’s (though, to be sure, never the Senator’s himself) original adamant denial. It also probably means Thompson’s “my client, not me” line won’t be enough. This was lobbying work, not legal work, which means those 22 conversations with the group involved advice about how to fight the Bush (41) administration’s rule.
The specific rule probably won’t be the issue. The pro-life movement doesn’t seem to consider it terribly important (for instance, the rule was eliminated by the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration has gone more than six years without reinstating it, and hasn’t come under much pressure from pro-life groups to do so). The issue will be Thompson’s abortion position more generally. He won’t have much trouble making the case that he wasn’t a pro-lifer in 1991 but is today. The same is true for a lot of conservatives. But to do that, he’ll need to say something about why, and something about what that means to him in practice. Done right, such explanations would only help his chances in the primaries, and probably in the general election too. How he manages the challenge will tell us a lot about his ability to handle himself in the coming campaign.