"Present" tension

The real story behind Obama's abortion votes -- and his critics.

Published February 6, 2008 6:20PM (EST)

There has been some grumbling about Sen. Barack Obama's handful of "present" -- as opposed to "no freaking way" -- votes on yucky abortion measures in the Illinois Senate. There's also been some grumbling about the grumbling. And, as the Washington Post notes, it all got louder -- in the form of "last-minute gambits ... to influence voters" -- right before Super Tuesday. Let's take a moment to clarify what's going on so that you can decide whether grumbling's in order for you, too.

Here's the deal. Obama voted "present" 129 times (out of about 4,000 votes cast) over about eight years as a state senator in Illinois -- one of the few states where legislators can vote "present" to indicate a procedural disagreement. "Present" is sometimes used as a means of objecting to details of a measure that one supports in principle -- and, of course, as a means of dodging an on-the-record yes or no. (But for all intents and purposes, a "present" counts as a "no," because it does not count as a "yes" that would move the bill forward.) The Clinton campaign and Illinois NOW have faulted Obama for his "present" votes on such abortion-related gems as a minors' parental consent requirement and the "Born Alive Infant Protection Act." Said one Clinton campaign mailer: "A woman's right to choose ... demands a leader who will stand up and protect it."

But was Obama hiding behind that big yellow button -- or playing out a broad, perhaps even more noble, reproductive rights strategy? Earlier criticisms of Obama's "present" votes did not mention that they were all part of a bigger plan. As Obama supporter Rep. Rosa DeLauro wrote in an e-mail responding to Illinois NOW, "The facts are clear -- in the Illinois state senate, choice advocates asked strong pro-choice legislators like Senator Obama to vote 'present' on Republican-designed bills like a ban on partial birth abortion to protect a woman's right to choose," she wrote, adding, "Senator Obama has always had a 100 percent pro-choice rating [from NARAL], and he is the only candidate running for President who stood up and spoke out when South Dakota passed an incredibly restrictive ban on abortion."

Fine. But why not "no"? According to Illinois Planned Parenthood president Pam Sutherland, the group feared that several senators waffling under Republican attack would cave and vote yes. They persuaded Obama to vote "present" as a means of encouraging the waverers to do the same -- thus preventing the bills from scoring the majority votes they needed to pass. Steve Trombley, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood's Chicago affiliate, explaining it last night on HuffPo, makes the plan sound even grander: "When Obama was an Illinois state senator he worked with Planned Parenthood to develop a strategy combating a series of extreme anti-choice measures designed to paint pro-choice legislators into a corner. Obama and numerous other state senators voted 'present' on these bills in order to protest the politicization of the health and safety of Illinois women. As a matter of fact, Senator Obama wanted to vote 'no' on these bills. But, he stood with his colleagues in protest against the anti-choice extremists who controlled the Illinois Senate at the time."

Illinois NOW still doesn't like it. (Note to selves! Feminists not always in lockstep!) The group didn't support the "present" strategy then, and it doesn't support it now. "We made it clear at the time that we disagreed with the strategy. We wanted legislators to take a stand against the awful anti-choice bills being put forth. Voting Present doesn't provide a platform from which to show leadership and say with conviction that we support a woman's right to choose and these bills are unacceptable," Illinois NOW president Bonnie Grabenhofer wrote in an e-mail. "The Present strategy was devised to give political cover to legislators in conservative districts. Barack Obama did not represent a conservative district; he could have voted No with very little negative consequence in his district."

That didn't seem to bother Illinois NOW in 1998 and 2002, when it endorsed Obama (and other legislators) after their present votes, Trombley notes. "It is only after years have passed that Illinois NOW has changed its mind," he says. "I don't know why Illinois NOW has changed its opinion of Barack Obama, since his record has remained the same, and since his time as a state senator, he has only demonstrated a full and steady commitment to choice."

Here's a bonus plot thickener: Longtime women's rights and reproductive justice advocate Lorna Brett Howard has said, in a YouTube video that's making the rounds -- and appearing on a blog at BarackObama.com -- that she jumped ship from Clinton to Obama after the former, citing those "present" votes, called him soft on abortion. She knows what she's talking about, she says, because she was president of Chicago NOW when Obama was in the state Senate (1997-2004). There's just one problem, says Illinois NOW: "Lorna Brett was president of CNOW from 1996-1998. She was not president at the time we were lobbying on these bills. Five of those votes occurred in the 92nd General Assembly session in 2001. NOW records indicate that she hasn't been a member since 1999." (Obviously, the two did overlap, so this doesn't mean Howard's entire statement -- most of which, ultimately, is her opinion -- is, as Taylor Marsh charges at HuffPo, "pure fabrication," but yeah, that math is clearly a bit misleading.)

Anyway. That's the story. Make of it what you will: Mountain? Molehill? Obama's "present" votes, cannily pragmatic or lame? If "cannily pragmatic," then is he not the Man Who'll Change Politics that he says he is? Should we, while we're at it, worry about his law-nerdily understated support for Roe as worded? Or the fact that -- if you ask me -- neither Dem seems to get that even parental consent with judicial bypass is unacceptable, too? Or should we quit splitting hairs, given that anyone's better on, well, everything than John "'Moderate' My Ass" McCain?

By Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of BreakupGirl.net. She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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