John P. Avlon
Author, Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics
While the Democrats' convention in Denver is reaching its culmination, John McCain is preparing to seize back the spotlight by announcing his vice presidential pick in the next 24 hours.
But he might be forced to go with second best for the second slot on his ticket: because John McCain has been chaffing against threats from the far right that they will bolt the GOP if he does not subscribe to their pro‑life VP litmus test.
It has been widely whispered around the McCain camp that if he were free to pick the candidate he felt would best compliment his campaign – and the man best prepared to be president – McCain would pick either Joe Lieberman or Tom Ridge.
Both these names would make good sense for McCain in a time of broad alienation from the Bush administration. But both men are pro-choice – like the majority of the American people – and that disqualifies them in the eyes of the GOP gatekeepers. It's the last taboo.
The long-shot selection of Independent Democrat Senator Joe Lieberman would be a game-changer. It would reinforce that McCain has centrist substance to compare with Obama's centrist style. And it would get him out of the Democrats' chief campaign attack to date – that a vote for McCain is effectively a Bush third term. You can't make that case with Gore's VP by his side.
Likewise, former Pennsylvania Governor and Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge could swing the delegate-rich Keystone state to the Republicans. He's a friend and fellow Vietnam Vet, doubling down on military service against a Democrat ticket that offers none.
But these arguments are not allowed. The most popular national republicans – Colin Powell and Rudy Giuliani – are likewise supposed to be excluded from any shortlist because they are pro-choice. Even the fact the John McCain is pro-life and boasts a nearly perfect voting record on the issue doesn't inspire enough confidence on the part of party activists to allow for a truly big tent.
The problem with the pro-life litmus test is that it isn't actually representative of the Republican Party, let alone the American people.
An Opinion Dynamics poll released last week made this point with unavoidable clarity: it showed that 68 percent of Republicans would still support John McCain even if he – at the top of the ticket – changed his position from pro‑life to pro‑choice.
Even more strikingly, 72 percent of self‑identified Evangelical voters said they would support McCain even if he switched his position from pro‑life to pro‑choice.
It's obvious that these aren't single issue voters – they are united by far more than social issues.
In the 35 years since Roe v. Wade, the abortion debate has polarized our political debates – but the American people are not nearly as divided on abortion as the activists on either side.
Over 60 percent of Americans consistently support the idea that an abortion should be between "a woman, her doctor, her family, and her God."
In contrast, less than 20 percent support a Constitutional ban on abortion, a plank in the Republican platform since the early 1980s. Likewise, less than 20 percent support the equal and opposite extreme of abortion on demand, without restrictions.
But between these extremes lies a common sense center, even when it comes to limiting abortions. The ban on partial birth abortion, for example, was broadly supported by the American electorate, well before the Supreme Court upheld its constitutionality.
The American people understand that while every abortion is a tragedy. It is both a theological and a biological dilemma. The real issue is not whether you are pro-life but whether you are anti-choice – do you believe that good people can come to different decisions, or that government should make that most private and personal decision for individual women.
This debate goes to the philosophic heart of the Republican Party. There is an inconsistency between pro-life litmus test social conservatives and the party's historic role as a party of freedom, begun by Abraham Lincoln and the abolitionists, and extended through Barry Goldwater's libertarian mantra of individual freedom and responsibility.
We may find out in the next few hours that John McCain has decided to follow his gut by nominating Lieberman or Ridge. But it is more likely that he will want to avoid the distraction of a destructive floor fight and pick from a smaller pool of pro‑life candidates including Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin and Tim Pawlenty.
Regardless of what happens with this VP selection, the Republican Party should be open to pro-choice candidates in the future, rather than rigidly and reflexively rejecting those who do not meet the pro-life litmus test.
Common ground can be found by pursuing the goal of reducing the number of abortions in America. But ultimately this debate will be decided by persuasion, not just legislation.
And John McCain is in a unique position to help move forward this debate – because some straight talk on choice would be healthy for the Republican Party and the nation.
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