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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The New Abortion Litmus Test

It’s hardly news that the anti-choice movement has all but conquered the Republican Party. Pro-choice Republicans (or at least pols who call themselves that because they don’t favor complete abolition of abortion rights) still exist, but are few and far between. At the presidential level, the self-described Right to Life Movement has an effective veto on candidates, as was evidenced once again in 2008, when Rudy Giuliani’s campaign crashed and burned and John McCain was prevented from selecting Joe Lieberman or Tom Ridge as his running-mate.
But impatient anti-choicers, who have always suspected Republican pols of playing them for suckers by making their concerns a low priority once in office, are ratcheting up the demands in this presidential cycle. The Susan B. Anthony List, a relatively new group modeled on the pro-choice organization Emily’s List, has devised a new and fairly complex pledge that it is urging Republican presidential candidates to take. Here it is:

FIRST, to nominate to the U.S. federal bench judges who are committed to restraint and applying the original meaning of the Constitution, not legislating from the bench;
SECOND, to select only pro-life appointees for relevant Cabinet and Executive Branch positions, in particular the head of National Institutes of Health, the Department of Justice, and the Department of Health & Human Services;
THIRD, to advance pro-life legislation to permanently end all taxpayer funding of abortion in all domestic and international spending programs, and defund Planned Parenthood and all other contractors and recipients of federal funds with affiliates that perform or fund abortions;
FOURTH, advance and sign into law a Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act to protect unborn children who are capable of feeling pain from abortion.

The third and fourth planks represent the latest strategic initiatives of the RTL movement: systematic defunding of institutions providing not only abortions but contraceptive services, and “fetal pain”-rationalized bans on abortions after 20 weeks, which have been enacted in several states (the SBA List wants similar federal legislation, which would, of course, trigger a major constitutional test in the federal courts).
So far five candidates (Bachmann, Gingrich, Paul, Pawlenty and Santorum) have signed the SBA pledge, and two–Cain and Romney–have refused to do so (it doesn’t appear Huntsman has been pushed to pledge just yet; Gary Johnson also wouldn’t sign it). The excuses made by the two non-signatories are a bit weak: Cain objects to the idea that the president would have to “advance” the abortion ban legislation, on grounds that’s the legislative branch’s responsibility. Romney said he had issues with too-broad language on both funding and nominations.
Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann both went after Romney on this incident, using it to remind Republican voters of Mitt’s shaky past on abortion policy.
Will this brouhaha matter over time? Perhaps, but only at the margins. SBA isn’t the only anti-choice group out there, and many conservatives would advance a different strategy on this subject, and/or don’t like public litmus tests.
But it does provide another kernal of doubt that Mitt Romney is “one of us” in the minds of conservative activists, particularly in Iowa and the South, who don’t buy the idea that social issues aren’t significant in this election cycle.

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