By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 14, 2008
As strong and consistent abortion foes, Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. and former congressman Timothy J. Roemer are anomalies in a Democratic Party that has overwhelmingly advocated abortion rights. Yet both are backing Sen. Barack Obama, whom one conservative blogger dubbed "the most pro-abortion candidate ever."
As firmly as Casey (Pa.) and Roemer (Ind.) have adhered to their opposition, Obama has never supported a single measure that would curtail access to abortion -- even under controversial circumstances. But Casey and Roemer have chosen to ignore Obama's legislative record, and are promoting the Democratic presidential candidate to their antiabortion allies as someone who could achieve a new consensus on the issue. "He has the unique skills to try to lower the temperature and foster a sense of common ground, and try to figure out ways that people can agree," Casey said, although the freshman senator added, "On this issue, it's particularly hard."
The endorsements send a powerful signal in two critical battlegrounds: Pennsylvania, which will hold its primary on April 22, and Indiana, which will vote on May 6. Both states have sizable segments of socially conservative Democrats who reject the party's orthodoxy on an issue they have long viewed as troubling and complex.
Casey's endorsement is particularly important because Obama's ability to reach these voters is even more in question in light of the controversy provoked by his description of small-town Pennsylvania voters as driven by bitterness over their economic situation and looking for ways "to explain their frustrations."
Campaigning in both upcoming primary states this weekend, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) seized on the comments to paint Obama as an elitist, out of touch with average Americans. But yesterday Casey said that the better his constituents get to know Obama, "the more they're going to understand his heart and his values, and I think he's going to win."
Obama did not mention abortion in his controversial remarks, made last week at a fundraiser in California, though he noted other divisive social issues. But last week in Indiana, he said that both sides of the abortion debate are guilty of hyperbole.
"The mistake pro-choice forces have sometimes made in the past, and this is a generalization . . . has been to not acknowledge the wrenching moral issues involved," he said. "And so the debate got so polarized that both sides tended to exaggerate the other side's positions. Most Americans, I think, recognize that what we want to do is avoid, or help people avoid, making this difficult choice. That nobody is pro-abortion -- abortions are never a good thing."
Asked last night at a nationally televised forum on religious and moral values if there can be "common ground" on abortion, Obama said that "people of good will can exist on both sides." With Casey watching from the audience at Messiah College outside Harrisburg, Pa., he added that while there will always be irreconcilable differences between opponents and supporters of abortion rights, "we can take some of the edge off the debate."
Obama is trying hard to make inroads into Clinton's support among women, and in at least one primary -- in New Hampshire -- her campaign successfully made an issue of his commitment to abortion.
A flier mailed out just before the primary targeted "present" votes Obama had cast in the Illinois legislature. Although he was acting at the behest of local abortion rights advocates, his advisers think that female voters backed off their candidate as a result, probably contributing to his narrow and surprising loss.
But Clinton has also sought to break from party policy, as she, too, made clear last night. She said that "I will continue to do what I can to reduce the number" of abortions, so whoever wins the nomination, Democrats are likely to try to defuse the issue in the general election. Clinton co-wrote, with Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), a significant abortion-prevention bill in January 2005; Obama signed on early as a co-sponsor.
Any attempt to play down the issue represents a marked change in a party for which abortion rights has been a defining issue. At the 1992 Democratic National Convention, Casey's late father, former Pennsylvania governor Robert P. Casey Sr., was denied a speaking slot after he refused to endorse Bill Clinton because of Clinton's support of abortion rights. His son shares the same convictions, and ran afoul of women's groups in his 2006 Senate race.
Roemer's antiabortion views have also shadowed his political career. Liberal bloggers and some party officials aggressively opposed his bid for chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee in early 2005, causing him to say: "I like a good fight. But don't put my arms behind me. Give me a chance to talk about my values. And don't litmus-test me."
Despite his opposition to abortion, Roemer said he has come to believe that the all-or-nothing approach that both parties have advocated over the years has created gridlock across the policy spectrum, from health care to international policy. He called the old style "tin cans on the back of a car." With Obama, Roemer said, "the first words out of his mouth aren't 'People should be free to do whatever they want.' He leaves open the possibility that there are other ways to address some of these issues."
Antiabortion leaders in Indiana and Pennsylvania were alarmed by the two endorsements, and were wary about the potential consequences. "We feel it's going to cause more confusion than influence," said Maria Vitale, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Pro-Life Federation, referring to Casey's endorsement. "But it was notable." To provide clarity, the group's political office mailed a voter guide to 100,000 Democratic and Republican supporters in the state. "A lot of people aren't aware of Barack Obama's position on abortion," Vitale said.
The guide, posted on the group's Web site, notes that Obama voted against parental notification laws. When the Supreme Court voted 5 to 4 last year to uphold a 2003 ban on a procedure that some call "partial-birth" abortion, he objected to the ruling as representing "an alarming willingness on the part of the conservative majority to disregard its prior rulings respecting a woman's medical concerns and the very personal decisions between a doctor and patient."
But Obama supports legislation that promotes abstinence education and contraception subsidies, and he strays into conservative terrain by urging more federal support for those who decide to proceed with unplanned pregnancies. A "Pro Life for Obama" group has formed on his campaign Web site, a lively contingent described as voters "who oppose abortion, but feel that Obama's proposed policies will do a better job of preventing abortion than another four years of Republicans taking half-hearted pro-life positions."
Otherwise, the Web site does not refer to abortion, posing a challenge for voters trying to determine his position. During a town hall meeting in Lafayette, Ind., on Thursday, Obama was asked what type of Supreme Court justice he would appoint. His lengthy answer made no mention of Roe v. Wade, the landmark ruling that legalized abortion.
But threading the needle in a bitter election year is a different matter. In both Pennsylvania and Indiana, Democrats who oppose abortion could swing the outcome of the primary election. In Pennsylvania, the Democratic presidential contest is the only statewide race that will not feature an antiabortion Democrat on the ballot. In Indiana, two socially conservative freshmen, Reps. Joe Donnelly and Brad Ellsworth, face tough reelection battles in November, and neither has taken sides in the presidential race.
"I'm not sure how the Roemer endorsement can be justified," said Mike Fichter, executive director of Indiana Right to Life. "I find it beyond confusing." But he conceded: "It could be significant with people who are paying attention to Obama's sound bites, rather than what he has voted for. For people who are not really digging into the background, support from someone like Roemer could have quite an impact."