A Major Abortion Blunder

By Robert D. Novak
Thursday, November 8, 2007

Fred Thompson was well into a prolonged dialogue about abortion on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday when he said something that stunned social conservatives: "I do not think it is a wise thing to criminalize young girls and perhaps their parents as aiders and abettors." He then went further: "You can't have a [federal] law" that "would take young, young girls . . . and say, basically, we're going to put them in jail."

Those comments sent e-mails flying across the country, reflecting astonishment and rage from pro-life Republicans who had turned to Thompson as their best presidential bet for 2008. No serious antiabortion legislation ever has included criminal penalties against women who have abortions, much less their parents. Jailing women is a spurious issue raised by abortion rights activists. Interviewer Tim Russert did not bring it up in his questioning. What Thompson said could be expected from NARAL Pro-Choice America.

Thompson's comments revealed an astounding lack of sensitivity about abortion. He surely anticipated that Russert would cite his record favoring states' rights on abortion. Whether the candidate just blurted out his statement or had planned it, it suggested a failure to realize how much his chances for the Republican nomination depend on social conservatives.

Thompson, a former senator from Tennessee, was working as a television actor on March 11 when on "Fox News Sunday" he hinted at a run for president. I started to take him seriously a month later when a religious conservative activist (we'll call her Miss Jones; she works for a nonpartisan organization) surprised me by saying that she favored Thompson to fill a void among the announced hopefuls. She told me that no first-tier candidate -- not Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney or John McCain-- fit her model and that the overt social conservatives in the race -- Mike Huckabee and Sam Brownback -- could not win the nomination.

In April, I encountered broad support for Thompson among social conservatives, who were impressed by his 100 percent pro-life voting record in the Senate and found fault only with his support for the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill. As of Sunday, Thompson was still leading in polls of conservatives by Human Events and American Values.

After Thompson's unannounced candidacy got off to a shaky start, I checked with Miss Jones shortly after Labor Day to see whether she had changed her mind. No, she still supported Thompson, though she seemed less enthusiastic. But Thompson's comments on "Meet the Press" changed everything. "It was the last straw," Miss Jones said. "I'm outraged, and so are a lot of other people."

In his first question on abortion Sunday, Russert asked Thompson whether he could run for president on the 2004 Republican platform plank endorsing a "human life" constitutional amendment banning all abortions. "No," Thompson replied, suddenly monosyllabic. "You would not?" "No," said Thompson, adding "that's been my position the entire time I've been in politics." Every Republican platform since 1980 has endorsed such an amendment, and every Republican candidate since then has been able to run on it.

Thompson thought better of this position after the program. His campaign manager, Bill Lacy, told me Tuesday that Thompson "does not want to change the platform." But there was no apology for raising the criminalization chimera. Neither Thompson nor Lacy seems to understand that what Thompson said has antagonized the social right.

Miss Jones told me she switched off "Meet the Press" after Thompson talked about jailing women. If she had kept watching, she would have heard him reiterate positions that have disturbed social conservatives previously: opposition to a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and opposition to congressional intervention to save the life of Terri Schiavo.

Thompson's performance comes as Republicans increasingly perceive weakness in Sen. Hillary Clinton as the Democratic candidate. But where will Miss Jones and conservatives like her go? Giuliani defends a woman's right to choose. Romney has made the switch from pro-choice, ending past opposition to a "human life" amendment. Huckabee is described by one national conservative leader as a member of the "Christian left." That leaves McCain, no favorite of the right, but the major candidate with the clearest longtime position against abortion.

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