Can Giuliani’s Position on Choice Embolden GOP Moderates?

Posted May 14, 2007 at 5:26pm

Republican presidential frontrunner Rudy Giuliani will be on the hot seat tonight at the party’s second televised debate, hosted by the Fox News Channel. The former New York City mayor, who last week reclaimed his pro-choice position on abortion rights, is likely to come under fire to explain his recent back-and-forth on one of the most controversial and polarizing issues of our time. And he might not be alone. [IMGCAP(1)]

Republican primary activists will be watching to determine whether Giuliani’s new position — favoring “reasonable restrictions on abortion such as parental notification with a judicial bypass and a ban on partial-birth abortion” but fundamentally opposed to a reversal of Roe v. Wade — is conservative enough. In the first GOP debate, Giuliani stated that it was “OK to repeal” Roe but later stated that he “would respect a woman’s right to make a different choice.”

Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund, stated after the former mayor decided to offer a “forthright affirmation of support for abortion rights” that she welcomes the GOP’s current frontrunner back into the pro-choice column. “Mr. Giuliani is pro-choice and at the front of the pack,” Richards said. “The days of the anti-choice stranglehold on the Republican Party are numbered.”

Somehow, I find it difficult to believe Republican primary voters — primarily made up of social conservatives — will give any of their candidates a pass on reproductive rights, but one can only hope Richards and others who share Planned Parenthood’s mission are right.

Richards is banking on Republicans who “have stood with Planned Parenthood throughout its 90-year history” to regain their voice and help reignite the moderate pro-choice wing of the party. And she’s betting Republican women will take the charge. A few months ago, former Bush administration official and ex-New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman (R) stated: “The litmus test for my book is if by 2008 the Republican Party could consider nominating a John McCain or a Rudy Giuliani, who right now are not considered ‘right enough’ on some social issues.”

When it comes to abortion rights, the Republican Party has become a vehicle for those who want to outlaw a woman’s right to choose. And some powerful leaders inside the party will hardly “make nice” with candidates who are not firmly pro-life. Just ask Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) about his experiences in the 2000 presidential cycle.

Who can forget the heated debate on the Republican side with conservatives such as Gary Bauer and Alan Keyes in the race? Right before the important primary in South Carolina, two leading organizations — the SC Citizens for Life PAC and the SC National Right to Life PAC ran statewide ads (Jan. 10, 2000). Together, they ran tough radio spots urging “pro-life supporters” not to support McCain, who was giving then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush a run for his money.

McCain, like Giuliani, came under heavy attack for not being truly “pro-life” because he did not support the repeal of Roe v. Wade. Like Giuliani, this issue dogged McCain for weeks leading up to the South Carolina primary and forced the “Straight Talk Express” to backpedal on a statement regarding what he would do if his 15-year-old daughter became pregnant. Poor McCain — his first response was to “leave the decision to her.” Hours later, he had to amend his comments, defend his pro-life record in Congress and add, “his family would help her make the decision.”

Perhaps the irony here is that one of Bush’s presidential legacies will be that, for the first time in 20 years, there is a serious pro-choice Republican seeking the nomination. Giuliani may not win over conservative hard-liners, but he might embolden others inside the party to stake out a more centrist position on the issue and to back pro-choice candidates in competitive districts.

After all, 23 pro-choice Democrats won their races in red districts and three new pro-choice Democratic Senators also won in such states. It is truly refreshing to watch this debate unfold as moderate pro-choice Republicans such as Sen. Susan Collins (Maine) seek re-election next year.

With more than a decade in public service, Giuliani has built too long of a record in favor of reproductive freedom to try to distance himself from it now. Voters are not that stupid to overlook a candidate’s past position. Giuliani is right to stake his ground and own it, for better or for worse, because no position can be more damaging than his constant and embarrassing flip-flopping.

Giuliani may lose social-conservative votes in the primary, but a socially progressive candidate who can lure moderates and independents may be exactly what the Republican Party needs to have a fighting chance in 2008.

Donna Brazile, the campaign manager for Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore in 2000, runs her own grass-roots political consulting firm.