Last night’s 2016 Republican primary debates showcased some stirring defenses of life from Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal, Marco Rubio, Mike Huckabee, and others, but also grilled some candidates on perceived pitfalls behind their rhetoric. Who got burned and who emerged unscathed? Let’s find out.
For the most part, the seven lowest-polling candidates at the 5PM had smooth sailing on abortion—not because they earned it, but because the moderators let two red flags pass by without follow-up.
Former Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore was asked point-blank whether he would have a pro-life litmus test for judicial nominees, but answered that his only litmus test would be “follow[ing] the law instead of making the law up.” A viewer who didn’t know that he’s a moderate who’s okay with abortion in a baby’s first eight weeks might assume that means one of his nominees would overturn Roe v. Wade, which most certainly does not “follow the law,” but his lip service to “some legal basis and precedence” should give us pause as to whether his nominees would think Roe gets a pass just because it’s been around for decades.
A more biting question went to ex-Governor of New York George Pataki, challenging him on the fact that a pro-abortion Republican hasn’t won the GOP presidential nomination in 35 years. He talked a good game about defunding Planned Parenthood, PP’s “hideous disrespect for life,” and about the Democrats’ radicalism on abortions past five months. However, the fact remains that his core position is not only pro-choice, but pro-choice despite going out of his way to profess, “I believe life begins at conception”… a contradiction, sadly, neither Martha MacCallum nor Bill Hemmer thought to ask him about.
Things weren’t quite so easy at the primetime, top-ten debate, though, with Megyn Kelly alleging that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker doesn’t favor a life-of-the-mother exception to abortion: “Would you really let a mother die rather than have an abortion?” Walker answered:
I believe that that is an unborn child that’s in need of protection out there, and I’ve said many a time that that unborn child can be protected, and there are many other alternatives that can also protect the life of that mother. That’s been consistently proven.
Substantively, Walker’s right—saving a pregnant mother’s life at the expense of her baby’s isn’t an abortion and wouldn’t be banned under “no-exception” laws, and even left-wing “fact-checks” that accuse him of this can’t point to specific statements, votes, or policies that back it up—but tactically, I think this was way too vague to satisfy the fears of voters who aren’t already well-versed in concepts like double-effect. You don’t necessarily have to say outright “I am in favor of life-of-the-mother exceptions” (though I would, simply to prevent any risk of confusion among voters who aren’t as politically-attuned), but you do have to make explicitly clear that, “Of course I would let doctors save your life, even if the baby was unintentionally lost as a result.”
In addition, voters should be aware that his boast, “I defunded Planned Parenthood more than four years ago” is only partly true. While cutting a million dollars from PP was indeed one of his first acts as governor, they have continued to get money from Wisconsin taxpayers through a women’s health block grant. Last month, Breitbart revealed documents showing Planned Parenthood locations across the state receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars apiece, and according to Wisconsin Family Action:
Other subsequent efforts have been considered to stop other public funding streams but nothing significant has been done. Right now PPWI receives between $15 and $16 million of taxpayer money each year. We have LOTS of work to do before we can say that Planned Parenthood of WI is truly defunded.
To be fair, Walker has expressed support for cutting additional Planned Parenthood funding, but the talking point simply isn’t accurate yet.
Later, one of the best moments came when Huckabee reminded the audience that we don’t need to amend the Constitution because the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments already require that the equal protection and due process rights of unborn babies be protected. But it would have been nice if he had done more to translate that into a specific plan of action—would he call out the National Guard to shut down abortion clinics, like he actually suggested last week? Or would he instead advocate for legislation invoking those amendments? One of those could unite and energize pro-lifers and move the ball forward; the other would be politically and practically… problematic, to say the least.
The most successful parrying came from Rubio, who when accused of supporting a rape exception was to first clearly deny it, then give a passionate defense of life that sold his sincerity about it. Today, of course, the media has tried to catch him in a “lie” over this, because he backed the 20-week abortion ban, which does contain a rape exception. But that’s pretty weak tea—supporting a bill that makes the exception isn’t the same as wanting the exception to be there; it just means you’ll support making as much progress you can at a time, while trying for the rest later.
However, there’s no question that the major candidate who struggled the most (‘cause let’s face it, Pataki’s not going anywhere) was Jeb Bush explaining his seat at the Bloomberg Foundation. It’s hard to believe that neither he nor anyone around him noticed a partnership between Bloomberg and Planned Parenthood that both groups were quite open and enthusiastic about in the press, and despite being exclusively involved in the charity’s unrelated activities, I can’t imagine a curt “it doesn’t matter” satisfying too many pro-lifers when it comes to any degree of association with an organization that promotes child murder.
The last bone of contention was Donald Trump’s explanation for why he changed from being, in his own words, “very pro-choice” in 1999. Citing the fact that he got to personally watch a child grow up who could have been aborted is about the best answer one could have expected, short of an “I was wrong” (which, let’s face it, just ain’t The Donald’s style). Whether you believe him is up to you, but it’s an entirely plausible answer, rooted in the compassionate lessons of firsthand experience that we know change hearts and minds every day.
Overall, most candidates impressed on the pro-life front, with all but a few hazards being surmountable. But as always, remember that it takes more than one debate to navigate the complex web of positions, histories, judgment, and explanations that ultimately determine who deserves your vote.