How to be honest about abortion

Chris Christie unwittingly shines a light on the transparent phoniness of Romney's abortion evolution

Published August 28, 2012 12:18PM (EDT)

When he takes the stage in Tampa tonight, Chris Christie will receive a warmer welcome than the last New Jersey governor to deliver the keynote address at a Republican convention. That would be Tom Kean, the aristocratic exponent of the “politics of inclusion,” whose speech to the party’s New Orleans gathering was interrupted by taunts from anti-abortion delegates.

Opposition to legal abortion is even more widespread in the GOP today than it was then, thanks to a quarter-century influx of conservative evangelicals and a corresponding exodus of cultural moderates. But Christie won’t have to worry about a repeat of the Kean episode, because he’s one of the pro-lifers.

Chances are abortion won’t come up in Christie’s speech tonight. In the wake of the Todd Akin uproar and the attention it’s drawn to the GOP’s rape exception-free platform language, Mitt Romney’s campaign is taking pains to avoid the subject as much as possible. But Christie’s abortion history is worth considering, because it provides a telling contrast with the soon-to-be GOP nominee.

On the surface, there’s no difference between Christie and Romney on the issue. Both hail from left-of-center states where they once described themselves as pro-choice, both switched their positions, and both now meet the informal but very real pro-life litmus test that the GOP imposes on nationally ambitious politicians. Both also say they favor exceptions for rape and the life of the mother.

There’s a significant difference, though, in each man’s evolution on the subject. To put it simply, one seems authentic and genuine, the other contrived and expedient.

Start with Christie, who launched his political career with a victory for county office in New Jersey in 1994. He was 32 years old and extraordinarily ambitious; within a year, he was running for the state legislature, with an eye on an even bigger leap after that; in some ways, the governorship was an office he coveted for three decades before actually winning it in 2009. It was shortly after winning that county election that Christie changed his mind on abortion. Here’s the story he told CNN’s Piers Morgan last year about his conversion:

I heard a heartbeat. I had been pro-choice before that. I would call myself before that a kind of a non-thinking pro-choice person, kind of the default position. When my wife was pregnant with our daughter Sarah, who is now fifteen, we happened to go to one of the prenatal visits at 13 weeks. My wife didn't look at all pregnant at that point, visibly, and we heard this incredibly strong heartbeat. As I was driving back to work I said to myself you know, under my position on abortion I would say that a week ago that wasn't a life. I heard that heartbeat, that's a life. It led to me having a real reflection on my position and when I took time to reflect on it I just said you know what? I'm not comfortable with that anymore, that was back in 1995, and I've been pro-life ever since.

It’s true that Christie was running in a Republican primary for the state Assembly in 1995, so there may have been some short-term advantage in the pro-life label back then. But his real goal was statewide office, and the consensus back then was that no Republican could win in New Jersey without favoring abortion rights – just like Kean and Christie Whitman, the only two Republicans to post statewide victories in the post-Roe era. That consensus only hardened in 2001, when the GOP broke with its custom of nominating pro-choice candidates and picked conservative Bret Schundler to run for governor; Democrat Jim McGreevey made Schundler’s opposition to abortion a central theme in the fall campaign and won in a landslide.

Christie lost that state legislative race in 1995, then got booted from county office two years later, at which point his political career seemed over. But the break of a lifetime – an appointment as U.S. Attorney by George W. Bush after raising big money for him in 2000 – made Christie a major player in the state and positioned him for his ’09 gubernatorial bid. In all those years, he could have reclaimed the pro-choice mantle with little trouble, and he had a clear incentive to do so. But he didn’t. Instead, he identified himself as pro-life and beat Jon Corzine anyway.

Next to this, Romney’s story reeks of calculation and cowardice. He also launched his political career in 1994, running against Ted Kennedy as a pro-choice Republican. Actually, that’s putting it mildly; Romney didn’t simply say he favored legal abortion – he told a horrific story about losing a family member to a back-alley abortion, and explained that the incident had convinced him the government had no business dictating a woman’s personal decision. This put him in line with the culturally liberal spirit of the state’s suburban swing voters, and with the consensus that had emerged in the state GOP with Bill Weld’s 1990 gubernatorial victory: Fiscal conservatism and social liberalism was the right combination for a Massachusetts Republican.

Romney, of course, lost that race, then found himself in Utah 7 years later, itching to get back in the game. For a brief period, it seemed his best bet would be to stay in that state after the 2002 Olympics, then run for governor in 2004. Not coincidentally, this is exactly when he decided to write a letter to a Utah newspaper in which he said he didn’t wish to be identified as pro-choice. The political logic was obvious: Utah is a socially conservative state and the Republican state convention that can make or break GOP candidates is an even more conservative subsection of it. To have a chance in 2004, Romney would need to be pro-life, and here he was taking the first step in that direction.

But then came an unexpected opportunity back in Massachusetts, where interim Republican Gov. Jane Swift’s political standing collapsed in late 2001 and early 2002. So when the games ended, Romney headed back east and ran for the Bay State’s top job as an abortion rights supporter. But this time his rhetoric was different; there were no stories about family members and he avoided using the pro-choice term, even as he insisted there was virtually no daylight between him and his devoutly pro-choice Democratic opponent, Shannon O’Brien. It was almost as if Romney was setting himself up for his next transition, from Massachusetts to the national stage.

Which, of course, he was. In the third year of his governorship, he officially changed his position. For a conversion story, he cited a late 2004 meeting with a Harvard stem cell scientist, who – supposedly – horrified the governor with his casual attitude toward destroying life. The story is suspicious for two reasons: (1) Melton adamantly disputes it; and (2) If that was the moment of Romney’s abortion awakening, then why (besides transparent political posturing) was he already disavowing the pro-choice label three years before the meeting?

Say what you will about the positions that Christie and Romney espouse on abortion today. But Christie deserves for something important: He leveled with voters on what he actually believes even when it wasn’t convenient for him. The same can’t be said for Mitt Romney. We still have no idea what he actually thinks. All we know is that he's ready and willing to pander to whatever constituency he considers most vital to him at any given moment.

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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