August 28th, 2008
12:59 PM ET

The GOP Should Ditch the Pro‑Life VP Litmus Test.

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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.

Filed under: John McCain • John P. Avlon • Raw Politics
soundoff (24 Responses)
  1. Claudia, Houston, Tx

    I'm not willing to give John McCain another house to live in free when he already has 8 houses. His plan to privatize social security only means that many seniors will live in nursing homes while he lives it up in one of his 8 houses at our expense. Don't let McCain retire in the White House send him packing, he is not our future.

    August 29, 2008 at 9:25 am |
  2. Ken

    While I think McCain should choose whoever he thinks complements him best as president, how would picking a pro abortion VP make him more centrist than Obama? Obama is as far left as one can get. He is nowhere near the middle. Obama supports aborting babies after they are born. Living, breathing crying babies. He is not even for saving them.

    As far as McCain's VP, I would not care if he picked a Lieberman or Ridge if they would help him out in office. I believe abortion is wrong but I realize that everyone does not share my belief. I would not support a pro abortion candidate for president (like Obama) because I would not want a supreme court to go crazy with late term abortions. People should really start looking into what Obama really stands for. Go back and look at some of his far left stances. He won't tell you about them on the stump. You have to dig a little bit. He is far left of the American people on some pretty serious issues.

    August 29, 2008 at 4:59 am |
  3. twiggy

    cindy you just seem to show up everywhere with this insane notion that people are not voting for obama- obama clearly proved him self tonight to be the man for the job. abortion is not an issue that will make or break obama campaign for the white house.
    abortion is a moral issue that can not be legislated by goverment – i agree with obama let's give women other choices, let's offer women an alternative to ending a babies life. that makes sense.
    obama/biden 2008
    yes we can! cindy your canadidate is out of touch with real americans, $ 500.00 shoes and 7-10 homes, his wife spends $750.000 on a cc for one month, mccain lives in a world where 5 million is middle class. he can't relate to my family at all, his shoes cost more than my car note and almost as much as my house note. mccain married his money barak earned his. let's just be real. their is a vast difference in where these two men stand, and barak is standing with the real american people all of us ... black ,white, asian, hispanic etc... no way, now how, no mccain! 4 more months. mccain mcsame.

    August 29, 2008 at 2:18 am |
  4. James J Ekeler

    Mr. Avlon you called Mr. Obama a Centrist and gave these statistics on the majority on Americans being pro choice. Yet in Oct . 2007 He voted against a ban on partial birth abortions. You said the majority of Americans are against PBAs. How can you call him a centrist?????? He's a Liberal in Centrist Clothing

    August 29, 2008 at 1:50 am |
  5. J.V.hodgson

    I'll be honest. I hope Mccain is driven to stick with his pro life convictions, as 75% of Americans do not fall wholeheartedly at least into the pro life camp, and will damage his attempt to be President.
    Why, because he will demonstrate yet again that Republicanism is Dogma, smears, lies, and pure politics and spin.
    Mr. Tucker Bounds, can only say about a fantastic speech by Obama that he is not ready to be president. He should say why; not simply be negative as usual, and why J.M. is better... Oh I forgot
    Pow and military Captain.
    30 years in the Senate and voting war war war.
    Drill, drill drill, never mind oil is a finite resource damaging the environment.
    My opponent is a vacuos celebrity and elitist, and "the one" I am sure the evangelicals liked the latter, it is blasphemy after all!!
    It also seems the republicans think it is a sin that Obama can draw 70-80 thousand people and he cannot, of course thats not an important fact simply confirms he is a celebrity. Err excuse me they are also voters Mr. Mccain, Mr Bounds. Even if he has become a celebrity politically speaking, so what, you are a celebrity in your respective profession because people ( voters) basically are happy , comfortable even sneakingly admire them and can identify with them.
    Talk issues and policy Republicans and more to the point Mr McCain tell us how precisely you will be different to Mr. Bush. You continuosly demand of democrats and Mr. Obama what his "change" is... Tell us at you convention as Obama clearly did how you Mr Mccain will "change" or not as the case may be.

    August 29, 2008 at 1:24 am |
  6. Ed Sykes

    Is McCain planning to announce his pick by telegraph?

    August 28, 2008 at 11:27 pm |
  7. Scott

    McCain can't pick a pro-choice VP because we are the only party that stands up for the right to life and it would damage his credibility. At least it's not above his paygrade to say when a baby has human rights.

    August 28, 2008 at 11:23 pm |
  8. carl

    This is to Julie, Do you know what all Morman's are required to do as part of their faith. They MUST go out and work with the poor and needy throughout the world...Mit Roomy did the same. Do you think this might be more earthy then gutting fish......

    August 28, 2008 at 10:48 pm |
  9. Annie Kate

    I think abortion is wrong but that is just my opinion for myself – I would not have an abortion or encourage anyone else to. The thing is I had the right to make that choice for me; other women should have the opportunity to make their own choice. I don't want to see abortion used as a primary means of birth control but sometimes for some people its needed and I'd rather them have the procedure in a safe environment with a licensed doctor performing the procedure than doing some of the dangerous things women used to have to do before abortion was legal.

    Annie Kate
    Birmingham AL

    August 28, 2008 at 6:33 pm |
  10. Chris

    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.

    32% wouldn't.

    That would have to be made up with millions of Independents.

    1 in 3 Republicans wouldn't vote for him! That's serious.

    The GOP would have to lurch to the center to pick up that many Independents. Somehow I just don't see them doing that.

    August 28, 2008 at 6:05 pm |
  11. Lesley

    I'm glad to see that someone is actually acknowledging in print that McCain will not be the one choosing his running mate. And ya'll can forget about pro choice. McCain stated in plain English at Saddleback that he is pro life and his administration will have pro life policies. In fact, forget about women's issues altogether while you're at it. If he gets elected, McCain will be in charge of the wars and the Republican party will handle everything else.

    August 28, 2008 at 6:02 pm |
  12. WA

    I don't think McSame's choice for VP will matter as he's not going to win! Anyone who would vote this senile, out of touch, old Washington style, Bush Twin into the Oval Office should have to pay his hefty salary! (not that he needs one of course with seven houses, millions in the bank in his name and millions more in Cindy's name) Yeah he's just like one of us. The one of us that are considered to be Middle Income coz we're earning less than 5 MIL HAHAHAHAHA And this man is in touch! In touch with what?

    August 28, 2008 at 6:00 pm |
  13. Jennifer

    I feel today is not the day he should make his announcement on his selection on VP. I know this is to move the spotlight but think it is tacky on this historic day and on the 45th Anniversary of the Martin Luther King spec.

    He should show more respect.

    August 28, 2008 at 3:53 pm |
  14. sigg

    is it not funny that after the Republicans minster put out a call to the Evangelicals to pray to god to open the flood gates of heaven and let it for rain on sen. Barack Obama speech a hurricane now looks to rain on their convention it just goos to show the republicans call them selfs a party of the church but if you read your bible you know god don't like ugly and you are not to do wrong to your brother or call death to your brother i think thy need to stop calling god in all their ungodly doings because god is love and the republicans know nothing about that

    August 28, 2008 at 3:48 pm |
  15. Reena , Phoenix AZ

    McCain must feel what we all see, that he is not truely embraced by the Republican party. As an independant voter I may have voted for him in 2000 but today he is a shadow of the candidate he once was.

    He is in a real no win situation, his pool of VP candidates are few and flawed.

    August 28, 2008 at 3:44 pm |
  16. kathi in KY.

    as one of the "disenchanted Hillary supporters", i hope he picks lieberman. it would make my voting decision ALOT easier, and prove that he is wanting to represent ALL of the American people, not just one side.

    August 28, 2008 at 3:30 pm |
  17. mark hoffman, Phoenix AZ.

    Look at Romney's past in Mass. to see how pro-life he was. Now he's changed his tune. And what Evangelical Christian is going to put a MORMON less than a heartbeat away from the top job? Most of them think that religion is a cult. If he wanted to placate the conservatives, he'd be better off with Hucklebee. Although then McCain would have to worry about the Christian Right praying for God to " take John back". I think Tom Ridge would be a better pick.

    August 28, 2008 at 3:26 pm |
  18. HF in CA

    Unfortunately, in many ways, pro-life folks have no choice. John McCain, however he got the nomination, is definitely center-right, and doesn't really represent every plank in the GOP platform. To liven things up a bit, I expect he'll choose someone even more center to appeal to more people. Obama is quite the liberal, and the GOP can't afford not to abandon its nominee, even when he doesn't look so great.

    Abortion, while more of a life-or-death issue, has gone the way of drinking and gambling. Folks with a moral worldview will always say it's wrong, but mainstream will just go with the flow.

    August 28, 2008 at 2:53 pm |
  19. Dennis

    With the democrats in control of the congress & house for the past two years, what have they done?

    BTW It was mentioned last night that Barack worked his way through college and university; might I ask what he worked at?

    August 28, 2008 at 2:52 pm |
  20. Debra

    The only way McCain has a chance is to pick an out of the box unexpected candidate that is either pro choice or a woman. The standard bearer of the prolife mantra won't do this time.

    August 28, 2008 at 2:41 pm |
  21. Caitlin, Nebraska

    I would love it if McCain picked Lieberman as his VP. I think it would be really good for his campaign and slapped the Democrats in the face. They would no longer be able to say that he's just like Bush.

    However, I do think that he's going to go with Romney, the safe choice. If does that I will really disappointed with McCain.

    August 28, 2008 at 2:35 pm |
  22. xtina, chicago IL

    There's too many wish-washy people in politics today, so I hope John McCain doesn't shy away from declaring an anti-abortion stance. Even if abortion wins the day in November, there should still be some people standing straight and tall against it and I hope McCain and his running mate don't compromise just to get to the White House.

    August 28, 2008 at 2:12 pm |
  23. Julie San Diego, CA

    McCain will likely pick Mitt Romney.

    He screams "conservative". He's got the pat answers down, in nice sound-bite form. He dresses the part. He wears more Teflon than any politician I've seen in a long time.

    He scares the hell out of me.

    Earlier in the year, I read an article where they interviewed Presidential candidates to ask them about the worst menial labor job they had taken to earn a living.

    Surprisingly, Hillary had worked gutting and cleaning fish for a fisherman. I guess evisceration is a useful skill in preparing for a career in Washington 🙂

    I was delighted to find that every major candidate had spent some serious time doing crappy work for minimum wage.

    Every candidate except for one: Romney had spent a few days lending a hand on a relative's farm.

    That's it. In his entire life, he could come up with only a few days of menial labor. And it wasn't because he HAD to pay the bills.

    Can you say "out of touch"?

    Remember people, if McCain dies in office, this is who we're stuck with...

    August 28, 2008 at 2:04 pm |
  24. Cindy

    I don't think that it really matters who McCain picks. The pro-lifers will vote for him when it comes down to it because they will not want Obama to win. That would be worse for them than anyone John could pick as VP.


    August 28, 2008 at 1:13 pm |