Many viewers were puzzled when, toward the end of the second debate, George W. Bush answered a question about Supreme Court nominees by referring to the Dred Scott case. Why bring up the infamous 1857 decision, which declared that blacks could not be citizens and, in the notorious words of Chief Justice Roger Taney, had “no rights a white man is bound to respect,” and which barred Congress from outlawing slavery in the territories? Perhaps, some wags quipped, Bush was trying to win black votes by coming out against slavery. Others suggested he was displaying his knowledge of Missouri history, or just being his usual garbled self–or maybe this was the only Supreme Court case he could think of. Here’s the passage:
“Another example [of criteria for choosing Justices] would be the Dred Scott case, which is where judges years ago said that the Constitution allowed slavery because of personal property rights. That’s personal opinion. That’s not what the Constitution says. The Constitution of the United States says we’re all–you know, it doesn’t say that. It doesn’t speak to the equality of America. And so I would pick people that would be strict constructionists.”
Bush’s language may be confused, but those who follow the anti-choice movement know that he knew exactly what he was saying: He was talking about abortion. As the blogger Paperwight puts it at http://fairshot.typepad.com/fairshot/2004/10/dred_scott_roe_.html, “Here’s what Bush actually said: ‘If elected to another term, I promise that I will nominate Supreme Court Justices who will overturn Roe v. Wade.'” If you didn’t realize that, it’s because you weren’t meant to. The President was speaking to his base, in code.
Anti-choicers, who often compare themselves to abolitionists, have referenced Dred Scott virtually since Roe was decided. A Google search of “Dred Scott abortion [minus] paperwight” turned up 3,960 hits. Both decisions, they argue, denied citizenship, human rights and legal protection to a class of human beings wrongly characterized as property; both forbade legislators from correcting this injustice; both show the need to overturn immoral precedents, stare decisis be damned. That he was thinking about Roe explains Bush’s odd characterization of Dred Scott as “personal opinion,” which got him tangled up when he belatedly realized that–whoops–the Constitution didn’t grant “equality to all”; it permitted slavery. “Personal opinion” is what anti-choicers think Roe is. “Strict construction” means overturning it.
When pro-choicers raise the alarm about the threat to abortion rights in a second Bush Administration, they get a big ho-hum from pundits, both left and right. Democratic candidates don’t talk about abortion at all if they can possibly avoid it. No wonder voters are complacent–even young women seem to assume abortion will always be legal just because, for them, it always has been. But at the Friday debate Bush tipped his hand: Now we know that while millions of pro-choice voters assume Bush can’t seriously want to overturn Roe, he is telegraphing to millions of anti-choice voters exactly how serious he is. The amazing thing is, he can pass his message to his base on national television, with every journalist in the country glued to the screen, and it takes a blogger to decode it for the rest of us.
For Bush, Roe = Dred. Spread the word.