The Magazine

The Right to Life Lobby vs. McCain

They're not fighting about abortion.

Apr 30, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 31 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
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Furthermore, McCain and three House members who joined him in the intervention are getting their legal representation free of charge, from Seth Waxman, who served as U.S. solicitor general under President Bill Clinton and is now a partner at the prestigious law firm of Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale & Dorr--because campaign finance reform is one of those issues that is irresistible to the well-heeled liberal lawyers who populate blue-chip firms seeking to look good by filling their pro bono portfolios. Indeed, McCain-Feingold has been an ideological money-magnet for liberal good-government groups, with nonprofits such as the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Carnegie Corporation, and New York University's Brennan Center for Justice pouring funds and free research into getting the law passed and then defending it in court.

Certainly, there's a lot to loathe about McCain-Feingold, especially if you are, as the NRLC is, identified with a "religious right" that supposedly yearns to impose its theocratic views upon secular American democracy. "There's an inherent suspicion of them in the [election-law] enforcement community," notes Smith, who says that when he first arrived at the FEC as a commissioner in 2000, he discovered in the agency's library an entire bookshelf of political tracts explaining in condescending terms what religious conservatives are supposed to be all about. The very aim of campaign finance laws is to restrict political expression (all in the name of battling evil corporations), either by limiting expenditures or by regulating the timing of political speech, as McCain-Feingold attempts to do. In addition, ever since the first campaign finance laws were passed during the 1970s, they have been Maginot Lines of pseudo-reform, notoriously easy to circumvent. McCain-Feingold was a response to loopholes in the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 through which soft money flowed like the Potomac River to the Chesapeake Bay. Yet no sooner was the ink dry on McCain-Feingold than special-interest organizations ranging from Swift Boat Veterans for Truth to MoveOn.org discovered the joys of becoming a "527" group--named after a provision of the Internal Revenue Code that allows freelance tax-exempt groups to engage in all the political advertising they like as long as they steer clear of endorsing or opposing specific candidates. Now, the move is on in this Democratic Congress to reform the reforms by curbing the 527s. McCain, to his credit, has at least supported an amendment that squelched a provision in the latest bill that would have required organizations such as the NRLC to register as lobbyists and submit to onerous reporting requirements.

This leads back to the fundamental question: Why shouldn't pro-lifers at least pay due respect to McCain's quarter-century of pro-life voting and support in Congress? He certainly beats Giuliani. The lapsed Catholic, thrice-married, unabashedly pro-abortion-rights former New York mayor was actually managing to squeak by as barely, just barely, acceptable to social conservatives who otherwise liked his crime-intolerant, post-9/11 tough-guy style by promising to appoint strict constructionist judges--until April 4, when he told a CNN reporter that he supported federal funding for abortion (anathema to fiscal as well as social conservatives).

As for Romney, he may enjoy James Bopp's support, but as late as 2002 (and certainly in 1994, when he tried unsuccessfully to unseat Democratic senator Ted Kennedy) Romney was endorsing a woman's "right to choose," supporting easy access to the "morning-after" pill (viewed by right-to-lifers as an abortifacient because it prevents implantation of a fertilized egg) and backing "comprehensive" (that is, contraceptive-centric) sex education for youngsters in public schools--not to mention taking a liberal stance on gay rights and openly gay military personnel. Fred Thompson, for his part, was not known as a pro-lifer during his 1994 Senate race, although he voted consistently for abortion restrictions during his eight years in the Senate, and now says he supports overturning Roe.

Votes in Congress do count for something, after all. On April 18 the Supreme Court upheld the federal ban on partial-birth abortion in a momentous 5-4 decision. That gruesome and not-uncommon procedure is now illegal--thanks in part to the support of John McCain (and in some respects to that of Thompson, who also voted for such a ban, although he was no longer in the Senate by the time the 2003 law at issue passed). Yes, McCain will be forever associated with a silly and destructive campaign-finance law, but abortion opponents, even the National Right to Life Committee, have something genuine for which to thank him.

Charlotte Allen, a writer in Washington, D.C., is the author, most recently, of The Human Christ.