Politics & Policy

John McCain’s Best-Kept Secret

No pro-life makeover required.

If I am fortunate enough to be elected as the next President of the United States, I pledge to you to be a loyal and unswerving friend of the right to life movement.

– John McCain to participants at the March for Life in Washington, D.C., January 2008.

A recent fundraising letter by the National Abortion Rights Action League calls John McCain’s abortion position (which includes voting “anti-choice” 123 out of 128 times) “the best-kept secret in politics.”

“You want some straight-talk?” continues the letter, “John McCain . . . is anti-choice — period. . . . The fact is, during a quarter century in Congress, Sen. McCain has shown nothing but contempt [for abortion]. . . . Funding for . . . ‘abstinence-only’ programs — he’s for it. Clarence Thomas, John Roberts and Samuel Alito for the Supreme Court — he’s for them.”

The McCain campaign would do well to seize this letter and send it to potential supporters, because, for once, NARAL is right: John McCain is pro-life. The mystery is why so many pro-lifers seem confused.

Exit polls revealed McCain failed to capture even a plurality of pro-life voters in the vast majority of primary states. And a poll by McLaughlin & Associates finds McCain lagging among the (largely pro-life) white evangelical Christian voting bloc.

But McCain recently reiterated his support for retaining the pro-life plank in the Republican-party platform, which calls for a human-life amendment to the Constitution. And McCain is supported by pro-life Congressman Chris Smith, who insists McCain is “pro-life in his heart of hearts,” and by the National Right to Life Committee’s board of directors, which recently unanimously endorsed his candidacy.

Pro-lifers should be rallying around Sen. McCain, and here are a few steps he can take to ensure that they do.

Move Beyond HESCR: Senator McCain supports federal funding for human embryonic stem-cell research. But the recent discovery of a method of re-programming adult cells to behave like embryonic stem cells should remove the demand for destroying human embryos for research. McCain should champion this new life-affirming research, which scientists believe may prove the most effective of all the options.

Get Specific on Judges: When speaking about the types of judges he would look for in Supreme Court nominees, Senator McCain often neglects to mention Justices Thomas and Scalia, both of whom he voted to confirm and have proven pro-life records. McCain could connect with pro-life voters by citing them along with the justices he regularly names, Roberts and Alito.

McCain also often repeats his pledge to appoint “strict constructionist” judges. But, as attorney Matt Bowman has noted, even those judges might not favor overturning Roe. If a justice feels “stare decisis” — deferring to past precedent — is strong enough, and if he isn’t really against abortion, he may decide that overturning Roe may cause greater harm than good. Therefore, as Bowman suggests, McCain should pledge to nominate judges who are not only judicially conservative but also socially conservative on abortion.

Discuss Non-Life Issues: Pro-lifers often cite the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law, which regulates the financing of political campaigns, and McCain’s participation in the so-called “Gang of Fourteen,” which prevented use of the “nuclear option” to force a Senate vote on President Bush’s judicial nominees, as evidence of McCain’s shallow pro-life convictions. But although the former does affect pro-life groups’ ability to spread their message, it’s not fundamentally “anti-life.” Neither is the latter, which helped lead to the confirmation of several pro-life federal judges and to a cloture vote and eventual confirmation of Samuel Alito to the U.S. Supreme Court. McCain would do well to help pro-lifers understand this part of his record.

Ensure a Pro-Life Republican Future: McCain can signal that he is serious about ensuring a pro-life Republican future by selecting a pro-life running mate. This decision is even more critical given that McCain would, at 72, be the oldest president to take his first oath of office.

Speak from the Heart: When McCain talks to conservatives, he should always include some words about the importance of the right to life. Recently while campaigning, McCain said: “I have been an advocate for human rights — having been deprived of them for a period in my life — from Burma to Bosnia to China to Cuba, and I believe human rights also extend to that of the unborn.” Words like these help pro-lifers know that McCain will be vocal on behalf of their cause.

McCain has also spoken passionately about his deep love for his daughter Bridget, whom the McCains adopted from Bangladesh in 1993. He has said that this experience helped make adoption advocacy a personal issue for him, spurring him to cosponsor a variety of adoption-related bills, including legislation prohibiting discrimination against families with adopted children. These types of personal stories resonate with all voters, especially pro-lifers.

Stop Federal Funding of the Abortion Industry: Planned Parenthood, America’s largest abortion provider, receives hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars every year, even though its annual revenues are close to $1 billion, and even though numerous affiliates are under investigation for violations ranging from illegal late-term abortions to ignoring cases of statutory rape and sexual abuse of minors. McCain can endear himself to pro-life conservatives (and fiscal conservatives) by supporting current legislation to de-fund Planned Parenthood.

Notably, none of these steps requires a McCain makeover. He is pro-life. Making this clear doesn’t undermine his reputation as a straight-talker. These are clarifications, changes in emphasis, and an updating of positions to reflect new realities.

Survey data reveal an increasingly pro-life America, both in sentiment and in deed. It’s a trend that’s evident among all political groups, but it’s especially acute among independents and young people, precisely the voters to whom McCain wants to reach out.

But it’s the votes of conservatives McCain will need most on Election Day, a reality McCain showed he understands when he recently pledged to “not just unite, but reignite, the base” of the Republican party. I believe he will do just that simply by highlighting the clear pro-life record he has built.

– Gary Bauer, a former presidential candidate, is chairman of Campaign for Working Families.

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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