Concord, New Hampshire—After a year of trashing on Planned Parenthood and the defenders of reproductive rights, suddenly contenders for the Republican presidential nomination are trying to advance their candidacies by calling other contenders too extreme when it comes to restricting access to abortion.
“Call Cecile Richards, the Republicans may need her to moderate the next debate,” jokes Arnie Arnesen, the former New Hampshire legislator and gubernatorial candidate who for decades has been one of the state’s most ardent advocates for a woman’s right to choose.
No, it is not likely that Richards, the Planned Parenthood Federation of America president who has courageously wrangled with anti-choice Republicans on Capitol Hill and on the campaign trail, will be called upon to help the 2016 Republican candidates sort through questions about abortion rights.
But the last Republican debate before the New Hampshire primary did explore the issue in a way that had at least some of the contenders acknowledging that Americans do not agree with the fierce anti-choice positions—and rhetoric—that have characterized this year’s GOP campaign.
Florida Senator Marco Rubio has been appealing to social conservatives by saying he would like to ban abortion as an option even in cases of rape and incest. “I would rather lose an election than be wrong on the issue of life,” says Rubio.
In Saturday night’s Republican debate in Manchester, the senator’s most aggressive rivals suggested that nominating a candidate with such an extreme stance would indeed lead to the loss Rubio mentioned.
“I believe that if a woman has been raped, that is a birth and a pregnancy that she should be able to terminate,” declared New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. “If she is the victim of incest, this is not a woman’s choice. This is a woman being violated. And the fact is that we have always has believed, as has Ronald Reagan, that we have self-defense for women who have been raped and impregnated because of it, or the subject of incest and been impregnated for it,” he said. “That woman should not have to deliver that child if they believe that violation is now an act of self-defense by terminating that pregnancy.”
Bush added a specific political rebuke. “I believe there should be exceptions: rape, incest and when the life of the mother is in danger. And so, that belief, and my consistency on this, makes me, I think, poised to be in the right place, the sweet spot for a Republican nominee. And others may have a different view, and I respect it. But I think we have to be cognizant of the fact there’s a lot of people that are concerned about having a pro-life position without any exceptions.”
As usual, Bush is understating the case. The latest Gallup Poll on the issue showed that only 19 percent of Americans believed that abortion should be “illegal in all circumstances” (the no-exceptions position). Notably, support for the “no exceptions” position has declined in recent years, while support for the “legal under any circumstances” position has risen.
At the height of the attacks on Planned Parenthood last fall, when the Republican candidates were at their most strident, a Gallup Poll found that 59 percent of Americans viewed the organization favorably. Just 37 percent of those surveyed had an unfavorable view. It was true that Republican opposition to the group had risen, but 35 percent of Republicans still identified themselves as favorable or very favorable toward Planned Parenthood.
No one should be confused about where Christie and Bush are coming from. Both have records of opposing a woman’s right to choose. Both joined in the crudely dishonest attacks on Planned Parenthood that characterized last fall’s debates.
But Christie and Bush—who are seen as competing with Rubio and Ohio Governor John Kasich for so-called “mainstream” Republican votes on Tuesday in New Hampshire and as the race continues—are now trying to distinguish themselves on the abortion issue.
That’s smart politics in New Hampshire, a state where Republicans have historically been more moderate on social issues, and where Democrats have made significant advances in recent years as advocates for women’s rights. Republicans and independents can vote in New Hampshire primaries, which makes the need to appeal to more moderate swing voters even more pressing for candidates such as Kasich, Bush, and Christie.
But the statements being made in the debate, especially by Bush, were not just about viability in the New Hampshire Republican primary. They were about Republican viability in November.
“The strangest thing about what’s happening on the Republican side is that it turns out that they’re looking for a wedge between Christie, Jeb, and Kasich on one side and Rubio. And what is the wedge issue? Abortion,” says Arnesen, a savvy observer of New Hampshire and national politics. “Blow me away with a feather. They’re saying that the problem with Rubio is that he’s too tough, he doesn’t want an exception. Did you hear Chris Christie talking about a woman getting raped? It was unbelievable. All of a sudden, they’re using abortion to protect [their political prospects]. They’re using abortion as a way to push Rubio off the boat.”
“Isn’t it amazing. This is what it has come to. This election has been unbelievable” adds the former gubernatorial candidate and current talk-radio host. “Here they’ve been railing about Planned Parenthood and, suddenly, they need abortion because that’s what sets them apart from Rubio. To present themselves as electable, they use abortion… I’m not sure they recognize it, but the message they’re sending is that, to be electable, to appeal to the American people in a general election, Republicans have to be more reasonable on abortion.”