At this moment, the abortion issue is a powerful arrow in the GOP quiver. That it remains in the quiver is a perplexing strategic error. More than a month ago, the Gallup Poll sent out a press release headlined, “Americans Approve of Most Obama Actions to Date.” Still in his honeymoon, the new president received high marks for his stance on such widely disparate issues as ethics reform, fuel efficiency standards, and naming special envoys to foreign hot spots. The major exception: Obama’s revoking of the prohibition on sending taxpayer money to overseas family planning groups that perform abortions. Only 35 percent supported this policy, with 59 percent opposed.
Although the Gallup findings received considerable press coverage, you would never know it from listening to Republican congressional leaders and spokesmen. They have been speaking out almost exclusively about economic and spending issues on which Obama and his fellow Democrats enjoy an enormous advantage over Republicans in popular credibility.
I would be the last to say that the loyal opposition should refrain from taking up an issue on which it starts out with a strategic disadvantage. As an optimist about democratic decision-making, I believe public opinion is more likely to be right at the end of a debate than at its beginning. Clearly, if a debate never starts, the side that starts ahead will probably win by default.
But what sense does it make to give the President a pass on abortion, a high-profile issue where he is the one starting at a huge disadvantage? True, there was a time when Democrats thought outspoken promotion of universal legalized abortion would bring them political gains. That time is long past, as is shown by the fact that Democratic candidates in most states seldom bring up the subject. When they do address it in a wider context than among hard-core abortion advocates, it is usually to claim their devotion to reducing the number of abortions taking place. Like Bill Clinton before him, Barack Obama is no stranger to this strategy.
Yet Obama is as unblinking an advocate as the national abortion culture has ever had. As a legislator in Illinois and a senator in Washington, he voted repeatedly against legislation to protect the unborn against the most gruesome late-term abortions, and even against providing any protection for babies who survive these procedures “by mistake.”