Senator Rand Paul, who sits at or near the top of most current polls for the 2016 Republican presidential convention, gave an interesting answer when David Axelrod quizzed him on abortion during an interview at the University of Chicago on Tuesday:
It’s a rambling answer, a politician’s answer, in which a number of reasonable points are connected into a whole that means less than the sum of its parts. It’s not unreasonable for Axelrod to keep pressing Paul on exactly what he plans to do about abortion if he becomes President. There comes a point at which lengthy discussions of your personal religious beliefs, versus what Americans are saying in polls, must give way to a simple declarative answer about your agenda. Senator Paul, and every other Republican candidate, should understand that the “abortion question” is not going to stop until they’ve presented at least the broad outlines of a policy agenda; you can’t just wring your hands about what a difficult question it is, and hope the subject changes before you sprain your wrist from all that hand-wringing. Naturally, every left-wing interviewer and debate opponent wants to prompt a “Todd Akin moment” that will fit into the Democrats’ War on Women narrative.
This works the other way, too, if Republicans are canny enough to press their case. Paul gets into the right ballpark when he muses there is “no exception for life” in the current abortion-on-demand regime. Ask Democrats about their support for various forms of abortion extremism – pumping taxpayer millions into the industry, treating abortion as the only business in America that is not in need of strict oversight, the late-term procedures Rand Paul mentions, sex-selection abortions, the Kermit Gosnell horror – and watch them squirm.
When Paul does eventually get around to the policy question at the end, he says: “I think where the country is, is somewhere in the middle. We’re not changing any of the laws until the country is persuaded otherwise.”
But a good bit of the country is persuaded otherwise, based on both the divided polls Paul cites, and the growing opposition to late-term procedures he mentions. Persuading them further requires leadership, which necessarily involves putting some political capital on the table. Threading the needle to avoid rocking the boat – and spooking young voters who generally like Paul’s libertarianism and criticism of the Surveillance State into jumping overboard – is a defensible political strategy, but it’s not leadership, especially not coming from someone with an excellent pro-life voting record… including sponsorship of a bill called the “Life At Conception Act.” Was that bill just a bit of posturing – the sort of political theater a Senator with a pro-life constituency can afford, but a presidential candidate cannot?
What Paul says in this clip about the search for middle ground, the need for persuasion, and the possibility of reaching an incremental solution that would ban the most offensive late-term procedures is very sensible. It’s an agenda with a real chance of passing, and it’s the kind of legislative success that can move opinion in the direction Paul (whose personal convictions about life beginning at conception seem entirely sincere to me) wants it to go. Accomplish what is possible, while being open and honest about where you want the national conversation to go, because the American people deserve no less… and it’s exactly what the don’t get from liberals who lie shamelessly to them, tricking them off one “progressive” cliff after the next.
But I would advise Senator Paul that none of his prospective opponents, in either the GOP primary or general election… to say nothing of a hostile media that really wants to arrange that next “Akin moment”… is going to forget that he sponsored a Life At Conception Act that would have banned abortion. Opening a wide gap between heartfelt personal belief, on a matter as serious as this, and his proposed use of the Presidential bully pulpit is going to disappoint more people than it reassures.
The gist of what he says in this interview with Axelrod is sound. He’s absolutely correct that persuasion is needed to move the public even further in the pro-life direction than it has already traveled – and it’s simply amazing that pro-lifers have accomplished so much through persuasion, when their cause is essentially outlawed by the dominant political and artistic culture. It’s the other side of the aisle that uses moments of fleeting political advantage to stuff social engineering “triumphs” down America’s throat, reshaping the law in order to force public opinion in line with their agenda. It’s the conservative and libertarian way to build consensus first, and then take legislative action. The question is one of timing: how much can public opinion be moved by leaders who refuse to fight political battles for what they believe in, until they’re assured of victory? How many minds can you change by talking about something, rather than putting a bill on the table and getting representatives to present their arguments in both support and opposition?
We can tell from this interview what President Rand Paul would not do. But I don’t believe I heard him say what he will do. Every candidate needs a firm, pettifog-free answer to that question. It’s quite all right to say, as Paul does here, that what you believe is possible and agreeable to the American people doesn’t quite measure up to where your mind, heart, and soul believe the country should be. But you eventually do have to specify what you think is possible. Both allies and adversaries will demand it.