Originally published in Politico
This piece originally appeared in Politico
The skeptics will say that Gov. Bob McDonnell, the Virginia Republican who is openly interested in being vice president, had no choice but to switch positions on a bill requiring vaginal ultrasounds for women seeking abortions. Letting such a controversial mandate become law would have undoubtedly compromised his national appeal and undercut his party in the commonwealth this November.
But politics aside, McDonnell’s change of heart is instructive for conservative politicians navigating the culture wars. First, McDonnell deserves credit for avoiding the usual rhetorical dodge. Rather than deflect the substance by basing his opposition on defects in the law-making process (think Haley Barbour criticizing Mississippi’s personhood amendment on the ground that it didn’t clear the regular pathway for complex legislation), McDonnell straightforwardly calls the ultrasound bill what it is: an “invasive procedure by the state without [the patient’s] consent.” When a conservative criticizes an act of unmitigated big government intervention, he shouldn’t have to mince words.
Second, McDonnell, an unabashedly pro-life politician, didn’t cave in to the idea that abortion politics requires politicians to cling to the extreme of their respective views. If that sounds intuitive enough, it is actually a departure from the way the right and left typically engages the issue. Liberals and the pro-choice lobby recoil from even the sanest limits on abortion access on the theory that they are a slippery slope, and weaken the principle of reproductive rights. Conservative politicians generally believe a pro-life culture requires every potential hurdle to be placed in the way of an abortion. It’s a zeal that easily leaps from waiting periods and strict licensing rules for abortion clinics to outright psychological compulsion, which is what the ultrasound requirement really is.
It’s no surprise that individuals who believe abortion is murder endorse any tool, no matter how harsh, to inconvenience it or discourage it. That’s the necessary lot of pro-life activists who are fighting around the edges of a Supreme Court precedent that in their view sanctions killing. It’s also a tempting time for social conservatives to forego compromise. They are galvanized because they despise the trend of government declaring selected portions of church doctrine a dead letter (the contraception fight, Illinois’ hard line on Catholic adoption agencies who oppose gay relationships) and they catch the whiff of condescension in the mainstream media toward faith.
But Bob McDonnell just showed a grasp for this truth: building a pro-life majority in a closely divided state requires uniting the true believers who see nothing but moral clarity with an ambivalent center that believes abortion is more irresponsible than homicidal. That McDonnell made that nod to reality isn’t “mushy moderation”, or selling out the fruits of a legislative majority: it’s a recognition that leadership and activism have different imperatives.
The fact is that in a country turning left on most social issues, pro-life politics is stronger than it’s been in decades—Gallup says about half the country opposes the legality of abortions, and the number who favor making the practice rare and hard to get approaches a super majority. One undeniable reason is that technology is simultaneously exposing the violent details of abortion and the vitality of an unborn fetus. The science is making abortion on demand look more hard-hearted than ever to young, college educated women, whose opinions on the issue have shifted dramatically in the last decade. What a huge error it would be to squander those gains by pushing the same women to the other side of the argument.