It is no secret that Barack Obama is making a play for religious voters. Having figured out that so-called value voters are among the voters he must persuade to win in November, Obama is openly talking about his faith. Contrary to popular belief, his problems are not really about his 20-year association with a hate-spewing preacher or scurrilous rumors that he is a closet Muslim. The real problem: he is adamantly opposed to positions these voters hold dear.
We saw this with regard to gay marriage. He previously had avoided approving of gay marriage, and embraced fuzzy language praising civil unions and supporting nondiscrimination against gays. But then he decried a California initiative seeking to ban gay marriage. Worse yet for his crusade to win over religious voters, he declared support the traditional institution of marriage to be “divisive and discriminatory.” It is not surprising that a group of evangelical leaders shortly thereafter came out in support of John McCain.
But Obama’s real difficulty comes over abortion. His record as a state legislator was extreme — voting “present” three times on a partial birth abortion bill and three times against a bill requiring medical care to babies born alive during an abortion procedure. In the U.S. Senate he racked up a perfect 100% rating from NARAL for three years straight. (His website touts a long list of pro-choice groups and his history of absolute support for Roe v. Wade.) And when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Federal Partial Birth Abortion ban he decried the ruling, saying “I strongly disagree with today’s Supreme Court ruling, which dramatically departs from previous precedents safeguarding the health of pregnant women.”
So it was not surprising that he tried to soften his position and reach out to religious voters in an interview with Relevant Magazine when he declared:
“I have repeatedly said that I think it’s entirely appropriate for states to restrict or even prohibit late-term abortions as long as there is a strict, well-defined exception for the health of the mother. Now, I don’t think that ‘mental distress’ qualifies as the health of the mother. I think it has to be a serious physical issue that arises in pregnancy, where there are real, significant problems to the mother carrying that child to term.”
Well, this sounded like big news. AP noted:
The health care exception is crucial to abortion rights advocates and is considered a legal loophole by abortion opponents. By limiting the health exception to a “serious physical issue,” Obama set himself apart from other abortion rights proponents. The official position of NARAL Pro-Choice America, the abortion rights group that endorsed Obama in May, states: “A health exception must also account for the mental health problems that may occur in pregnancy. Severe fetal anomalies, for example, can exact a tremendous emotional toll on a pregnant woman and her family.”
As a savvy court watcher pointed out, “[T]here’s no mistaking that Obama says he no longer will support what’s long been a cornerstone of the abortion rights debate: The Court’s insistence that laws banning abortions after the fetus is viable (now about 22 weeks) contain an exception to allow doctors to perform them if necessary to protect a pregnant woman’s mental health.” In short, Roe v. Wade and subsequent cases have made clear that although states can “regulate” late term abortions, such abortions must always be permitted to protect the “mental health” of the woman.
So Obama’s newfound appreciation for regulating or banning late-term abortions did not mesh with Roe v.Wade or with his support for the Freedom of Choice Act which would embody Roe v. Wade in a federal statute. (And yes, the Freedom of Choice Act would prohibit any regulation of abortion which did not have a clear “mental health” exception.) Karl Rove among others lost no time in pointing out the divergence between Obama’s soothing words to value voters and his track record on abortion.
Now, it was only a matter of time before Obama had to retreat. He really couldn’t, as a committed pro-choice candidate, maintain that Roe v.Wade and the Freedom of Choice Act should be modified, could he? Well, no, and the backtrack was quick, albeit muddled. The exchange with a reporter went like this:
Reporter: You said that mental distress shouldn’t be a reason for late-term abortion?
Obama: “My only point is this — historically I have been a strong believer in a women’s right to choose with her doctor, her pastor and her family. And it is. . . I have consistently been saying that you have to have a health exception on many significant restrictions or bans on abortions including late-term abortions. In the past there has been some fear on the part of people who, not only people who are anti-abortion, but people who may be in the middle, that that means that if a woman just doesn’t feel good then that is an exception. That’s never been the case.
I don’t think that is how it has been interpreted. My only point is that in an area like partial-birth abortion having a mental, having a health exception can be defined rigorously. It can be defined through physical health, It can be defined by serious clinical mental-health diseases. It is not just a matter of feeling blue. I don’t think that’s how pro-choice folks have interpreted it. I don’t think that’s how the courts have interpreted it and I think that’s important to emphasize and understand.”
The short version: never mind.
Now knowledgeable voters will of course spot the obvious problem even with this clarification. Obama would certainly oppose (and Roe would likely not permit) legislation requiring an exacting mental examination to determine if the woman was truly “depressed” and not just “feeling blue.”
This episode left observers scratching their heads. Did Obama not understand the legal implications of “mental distress” and what Roe v. Wade actually means? Or was he simply pandering to value voters, hoping to finesse language sufficiently to convince this voting bloc that he was not an extremist on abortion?
It seems the latter is the case. There is not a shred of evidence in his voting record or his language before the Relevant Magazine interview that he is anything but devoted to preserving Roe v. Wade as the law of the land — which means that late term abortions can be obtained virtually at will.
This foray into foreign territory — the world of religious voters who hold conservative social views — was therefore less than successful. And the result is likely not to be any different whenever Obama is forced to speak about his actual positions on issues. He does not favor, and indeed is opposed, to the wish list of issues for these voters. While they might appreciate hearing about his personal faith story, they aren’t going to like what he says on the issues.
So rather than fudge his way through, get caught and call attention to the divergence between his views and those of a constituency he hopes to capture, he might follow some sage advice: if you don’t have anything nice — or beneficial — to say, don’t say anything at all.