Ambitious Republicans Conveniently Discover Opposition To Abortion Just In Time To Woo Conservative Voters

January 03, 2012 2:30 pm ET — Jamison Foser

Mitt Romney

Steve Benen flags a report that Mitt Romney "decided to run as a pro-choice candidate, pledging to support Roe v. Wade" in his unsuccessful 1994 Senate campaign after polling "showed it would be impossible for a pro-life candidate to win statewide office in Massachusetts." Benen notes the absurdity:

So, let me get this straight. Mitt Romney was pro-choice because a poll told him it was the easiest way to advance his political ambitions? And then he decided he wasn't pro-choice anymore, when that was the easiest way to advance other political ambitions?

Romney's conveniently shifting position(s) on abortion are well-known, yet he remains the frontrunner for the presidential nomination in a party marked by its militant hostility towards reproductive rights. How is that possible? Perhaps because Romney's finger-in-the-wind approach to a topic social conservatives consider the greatest moral issue of our time isn't all that uncommon among prominent Republicans. 

There's a long history of ambitious politicians whose opposition to abortion rights happens to intensify as they seek the support of social conservatives. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) shifted rightward on abortion under pressure from conservatives during his 2008 presidential campaign, as did Bob Dole during his 1996 campaign. Both George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush moved rightward on abortion during their political careers, the elder Bush just in time to win a spot on Ronald Reagan's ticket in 1980.

Nor is the tendency for Mitt Romney's views on abortion to correlate nicely with his immediate electoral concerns unique among the current Republican presidential field. Last week, Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX) "revealed a hardening in his stance on abortion" just in time for the Iowa caucuses. Newt Gingrich, who rose from House GOP back-bencher to Speaker of the House by attacking Democrats as "sick" and linking them with child-killers, shifted rightward on a so-called "family values" issues while seeking office in Georgia. From a November 24, 1994, New York Times article, via Nexis:

In his early 20's, he was something of a liberal. [...] But after he lost two races for the House, in 1974 and 1976, he determined that he could get elected only by moving further right. Many who knew him in that period attribute his adoption of a conservative agenda and his exploitation of the family-values theme to his political ambition, not to a belief, at least at that time, in core conservative values.

"When I first knew him in the 70's, when I was on The Atlanta Constitution's liberal editorial board, and we were looking for a liberal to get behind, we chose to endorse Newt Gingrich because we thought he was progressive and thought he was, to use the terrible L word, liberal," said Bill Shipp, who now writes a newsletter on Georgia politics.

"Why did he switch?" Mr. Shipp said. "Public opinion polls, what do you think? Liberal went out; conservative came in."

Even after becoming Speaker of the House, Gingrich was still struggling to keep his views on abortion straight: 

In the morning, Gingrich told NBC News that he favored abortion in limited circumstances: rape, incest and to protect a woman's life. In an afternoon town meeting in Marietta, Ga., Gingrich said he backed a constitutional amendment to ban all abortions.

Gingrich's office did not return phone calls for comment.

And Rick Santorum, the candidate most closely identified with social conservatives and most vocal in his opposition to abortion? Santorum has said, "I was basically pro-choice all my life, until I ran for Congress. But it had never been something I thought about." An October 28, 1990, Pittsburgh Press article detailed the extent to which Santorum's realization of his opposition to abortion just happened to coincide with his need for the support of religious conservatives:

Santorum is also relying on the ranks of religious conservatives opposed to legal abortion. 

That marks a definitive philosophical arrival for Santorum, who describes himself in his campaign manual as a "progressive conservative," and who did not have a firm position on abortion -- a flashpoint issue with the religious right -- until after he began his campaign.

Santorum said he had always opposed government funding of abortions, but "beyond that I tried as much as I could to dance around the issue, not really take a position on it." 

But in fact, Santorum had taken enough of a position that he drew up, around December, a position paper that later had to be quietly withdrawn. In that paper, Santorum said, he had limited his opposition to abortion to cover only the time in which a fetus is considered viable -- usually taken to mean the final three months of pregnancy -- and to public funding of abortions.

Santorum later had the papers withdrawn from his campaign after settling on a position opposing most forms of legalized abortion.

"For me it was just a lot of education, a lot of soul-searching," he said.

And it couldn't have come at a better time: With the support of social conservatives, Santorum narrowly upset an incumbent Democrat. 

Maybe it's just a coincidence that so many ambitious Republican politicians happen to discover their deeply held opposition to legal abortion right around the time they realize they need the support of social conservatives to win an election. Or maybe Thomas Frank was right, and Republican candidates cynically adopt right-wing positions on social issues in order to win middle-class support for economic policies that favor the wealthy.