Having survived Hillary Clinton's "kitchen sink'' attack strategy, Barack Obama may think there's not much left in the kitchen for Republicans to throw at him except a few pots and pans. As he turns his attention to the general election, Obama has invited McCain to join him in debating "big issues'' — national security, health care, the economy — instead of resorting to the old politics of personal attacks and negative ads. He is naive if he thinks McCain is going to allow him to set the rules of the game.
The Republicans — and I'm not talking about the nuts in the fruitcake fringe of the GOP — are going to pick up where Hillary Clinton left off in defining Obama as an elitist who doesn't understand the concerns and values of those gun-owning, church-going Americans he described as "bitter.'' They're not going to let voters forget about his association with Bill Ayers, a leftist radical from the '60s, or the incendiary sermons of his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. And they will add something new to this mix — Obama's record on abortion.
Abortion wasn't an issue in the Democratic primary campaign where only prochoice candidates need apply. However, Republicans are never ones to leave a wedge issue unused, and they're not about to give Obama a pass on abortion. Unlike McCain, a staunch prolifer, as abortion opponents call themselves, Obama's record on abortion is "extreme,'' according to conservative pundits and bloggers.
They point out that Obama not only voted against a ban on so-called partial-birth abortion, a procedure the late Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York once called "too close to infanticide,'' but opposed a bill to protect the life of an infant who survived a late-term abortion.
This could be a problem for Obama, who already has tripped over guns and religion. A majority of Americans support the right to abortion with some restrictions, generally approving the procedure in the first and second trimesters and in case of rape or incest, or to save the life of the mother.
Republicans will try to convince voters that Obama is outside this mainstream by focusing on his opposition, as an Illinois state senator, to a state version of the federal Born Alive Infants Protection Act, which passed the U.S. Senate in 2002 by a unanimous vote. The law prevents the killing of infants, usually by denying them medical care, when they are mistakenly left alive, outside the mother's womb, after an abortion.
Speaking against a similar bill in the Illinois Senate, Obama sounded like the constitutional law professor he was before going into politics.
"Number one,'' he said, "whenever we define a pre-viable fetus as a person that is protected by the Equal Protection Clause or the other elements in the Constitution, what we're really saying is, in fact, that they are persons that are entitled to the kinds of protections that would be provided to a child, a 9-month-old child that was delivered to term. That determination then, essentially, if it was accepted by a court, would forbid abortions to take place. I mean, it — it would essentially bar abortions, because the Equal Protection Clause does not allow somebody to kill a child, and if this were a child, this would be an anti-abortion statute.''
Democrats in Congress raised the same concern about the original version of the federal legislation. Language was added to make it clear the bill would not encroach on a woman's right to choose an abortion and the measure passed without opposition.
Obama later said he would have voted for that bill.
However, critics note that in 2003, when an Illinois lawmaker again introduced a state Born Alive Infant Bill, it came with a proposed amendment that included language on protecting abortion rights identical to the federal version. The bill was never brought up for a vote in the Health and Human Services Committee, which Obama chaired.
Most voters know where they stand on abortion, so it's not likely they will be swayed one way or the other by GOP attacks on Obama's record, especially when their concerns center on the war in Iraq and economic woes here at home. That said, abortion is the kind of issue that may not amount to much standing alone, but when it is used along with other issues to raise questions about a candidate's values, it could be troubling to some voters for whom the idea of allowing an infant to die after surviving an abortion is too gruesome to think about.
Democrats don't seem worried. They can't imagine abortion or any other social issue distracting voters from the central question of the November election: Whether to extend George W. Bush's presidency for four more years by electing John McCain.
Philip Gailey's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.