Backing Thompson: Human Life and Political Reality When the National Right to Life Committee endorsed Fred Thompson for president, the conservative group was looking past his voting record and public positions on matters relevant to life. Instead, the group was looking at the issue of his electability.
NPR logo Backing Thompson: Human Life and Political Reality

Backing Thompson: Human Life and Political Reality

Republican presidential candidate Fred Thompson (left) speaks with moderator Tim Russert of NBC's Meet the Press, Nov. 4, 2007. Alex Wong/Getty Images for 'Meet the Press' hide caption

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Alex Wong/Getty Images for 'Meet the Press'

Republican presidential candidate Fred Thompson (left) speaks with moderator Tim Russert of NBC's Meet the Press, Nov. 4, 2007.

Alex Wong/Getty Images for 'Meet the Press'

When the National Right to Life Committee endorsed Fred Thompson for president this week, their news conference was less announcement than cri de coeur — not just from this group but from the whole social conservative movement.

No one could miss the irony in the choice of Thompson or in the justifications offered for that choice by NRLC executive director David O'Steen. Here was the nation's largest and best known anti-abortion organization embracing a candidate who had just told NBC's Tim Russert that he did not support the Human Life Amendment — the centerpiece of the NRLC legislative agenda for more than 30 years.

Thompson said he would rather appoint Supreme Court justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade and return the question of abortion to the states. He called it federalism. Plenty of other people would call it throwing in the towel, signing off on legal abortion for most of the population so that the more conservative states can be free to ban it.

Thompson has been at odds with the Republican Party platform, as well as the stated aims of the NRLC. Both favor an amendment to the U.S. Constitution defining life as beginning at conception. Thompson, who can be a little fuzzy on the life-at-conception point, maintains that the Human Life Amendment cannot be passed and ratified. Therefore, he adds, pursuing it is counterproductive.

That's apostasy for the most committed anti-abortion activists, some of whom had written Thompson off as a squishy moderate in the days since Thompson appeared on Russert's show.

But that principled view did not prevail in the councils of the NRLC. According to O'Steen, the group decided not to insist on fealty to the Human Life Amendment. Instead, it looked at past voting records overall, public positions on matters relevant to life and, finally — here's the real story — electability.

Thompson was not perfect on either of the first two counts, but he was the best thing going on the third. Again and again, O'Steen cited polling that showed Thompson running second to former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani as if that were the bottom line and the last word.

O'Steen was admirably unbuttoned about the group's real agenda in 2008, which is almost purely defensive at this point. For those who consider themselves pro-life, the first imperative is to deny the GOP nomination to Giuliani, who O'Steen described as "pro-abortion." He scarcely needed to add that a Giuliani ticket would present anti-abortion voters with a November choice between two major-party backers of abortion rights, as all the Democratic contenders in 2008 are clearly pro-choice.

In other words, if Giuliani gets the GOP nod, the anti-abortion movement will have been defeated before the general election even begins. Starting from that salient point, the rest of the NRLC endorsement decision seems to have been not just a painful process of elimination but a wrenching exercise in winnowing.

There are four Republicans polling in double digits. One is Giuliani, who is in the high 20s or higher in most national polls. Another is Mitt Romney, who leads in the first two critical states voting in January.

But until a few years ago Romney was the pro-abortion-rights governor of Massachusetts. He has since converted to a full-throated anti-abortion position more in keeping with his Mormon background. That move by Romney was enough to win over Paul Weyrich, the co-founder of the Moral Majority who famously derailed Republican John Tower's nomination as secretary of defense back in 1989 by exposing him as a hard-drinking womanizer. But Romney has found it hard to attract other big-name social cons, in part because so many evangelicals regard Mormonism as a cult rather than as a legitimate subdivision of Christianity.

A third Republican in double digits is John McCain, the onetime frontrunner whose voting record on abortion is at least as good as Thompson's. But McCain was never a likely recipient of the NRLC endorsement because his campaign finance proposals inhibit the ability of advocacy groups to influence elections. In his remarks this week, O'Steen did not dwell on this issue, stressing instead the differences his group has had with McCain on embryonic stem-cell research.

That leaves Thompson as the only other Republican in double digits and the NRLC seems to have been powerfully aware of this fact. While Thompson was a major backer of McCain's campaign finance ideas, he has been forgiven, O'Steen said this week, because he has repented on the specific provisions of concern to the NRLC. He also seems to have found a stand on embryonic stem-cell research that's acceptable to the NRLC.

There are, of course, other Republican hopefuls who would not need to trim their sails to navigate a more NRLC-friendly course. Most obvious among them is Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, who is a Baptist minister. Huckabee's views on the social issues are those of the social conservative movement. But his views of taxation policy have earned the enmity of the GOP anti-tax wing, which is where the campaign money is. O'Steen seemed regretful in noting that Huckabee, while attractive, had not reached the level of financial viability.

It must be said that O'Steen and his board of directors were not conducting a search for the most anti-abortion candidate. They were looking for someone who could beat Giuliani and then beat Hillary Clinton or whichever alternative pro-choice candidate the Democrats prefer.

Nominating an anti-abortion purist might feel good in the short run, but it would be disastrous if it bound the movement to a candidate who was dissed and dismissed in the first few voting events in January. Such a rejection would imply the movement itself was less potent a part of the conservative coalition that it has presumed itself to be since 1980.

The beauty of endorsing Thompson is that the NRLC will be seen as kingmaker if he catches fire and burns all the way through to the nomination. And just as important, if Thompson flames out early, no one is likely to blame it on the social conservatives — much less on NRLC in particular.

If that sounds defensive, well, so be it. It makes sense for the anti-abortion forces to be playing defense in American politics right now because their most helpful president in half a century, George W. Bush, is limping toward an ignominious exit. It also makes sense because Bush's Supreme Court appointees to date have already brought the movement within a single vote of a majority that could overturn Roe v. Wade. Just one more term for the Republicans in the White House ought to be enough to tip the balance — given the age of liberal Justices John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

So it's important not to blow it. That may mean pulling in the movement's horns for the sake of finding a Republican winner. And finally, if there is not going to be a Republican winner in 2008, then it will be just as important that the social conservative movement not be held responsible for the loss.