If there’s one thing most politicians dread, it’s being pinned down on the abortion issue. Most prefer to speak in generalities which let people with a wide spectrum of beliefs about abortion hear what they want to hear. One of the very first politicians to exploit this phenomenon was Jimmy Carter, who won the 1976 Iowa caucus by masking his pro-choice position so well that countless pro-lifers mistakenly thought he was one of them. George W. Bush’s repeated and unelaborated commitment to creating a “Culture of Life” was another masterful example of this principle. He was too smart to ever give the Democrats a juicy soundbite like “Women facing unwanted pregnancies should be forced to carry them to term,” but also smart enough to never say anything which might cause his pro-life supporters to doubt that he actually believed this. Even now, nearly three years after he left office, I still have no idea what Bush’s precise position on abortion’s legality is.
Herman Cain, who unlike the rest of the Republican field is not a politician, hasn’t learned the art of the craft yet. His statements on abortion zigzag, and are hopelessly contradictory. They paint a picture of a man who has zero studied convictions, and just says whatever he thinks of on his feet when the issue comes up. In the space of a single interview with Piers Morgan, Cain went from being perceived as the most pro-life candidate in the field to the least. His recent Tweet (“I’m 100% pro-life. End of story”) does little to clear things up.
The basic underlying problem is that “pro-life,” as a statement of a candidate’s political stance, means almost nothing. Sometimes, “pro-life” means little more than “I have this vague feeling that abortion is usually the wrong choice.” Over the years, countless Democrats have advertised themselves as “pro-life” in the election season, but cast many pro-choice votes once they get into office. Bob Casey Jr. is one of the more prominent, and recent examples. He voted to kill the Mexico City policy in 2007, and voted against defunding Planned Parenthood earlier this year. It’s not that Casey flat-out lied in the 2006 election, it’s just has a different idea of what it means to be “pro-life” than others in the movement.
As for poor Herman Cain, whatever his idiosyncratic definition of “pro-life” ultimately turns out to be, in the end I doubt he would govern any differently from someone with unimpeachable pro-life bona fides, like Rick Santorum. Regardless of Cain’s position, Congress isn’t going to be banning abortion anytime soon. In the meantime, pro-lifers ought to be aware that Cain is far from the only “pro-life” political figure to engage in this sort of subterfuge – he’s just less skilled at it than most.