McCain and Obama on Abortion

Time | Nancy Gibbs | Aug. 17, 2008

Watching Barack Obama and John McCain handle Pastor Rick Warren’s questions about abortion, you could see the whole presidential race in miniature taking shape before our eyes. The clear answer beats the clever one any time … unless you worry about the chaos that clarity can bring.

Before a friendly but still skeptical evangelical crowd at Warren’s Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., on Saturday night, McCain won a roar of approval when Warren asked him at what point a human being gets human rights: “At the moment of conception,” McCain replied. The answer was clear, unequivocal and a great relief to restless Republicans who had endured a week of indigestion on the issue.

Murmurs that McCain was flirting with a pro-choice running mate like former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge or Joe Lieberman had Rush Limbaugh and his army in full stampede. “The fur is going to fly on this one,” Limbaugh warned, about the prospect of McCain taking social conservatives for granted.

McCain’s straightforward answer, along with his assertion that he would not have nominated any of the Supreme Court’s four liberal judges (notwithstanding that he voted to confirm all but John Paul Stevens, who was named before McCain was in the Senate), had social conservatives breathing sighs of relief. “I will be a pro-life president, and this presidency will have pro-life policies.” McCain said, to cheers from the audience. “OK,” Warren laughed,” we don’t have to go longer on that one.”

Meanwhile Obama offered an artful dodge to the question of when a human deserves rights:

“Whether you’re looking at it from a theological perspective or a scientific perspective, answering that question with specificity is above my pay grade,”

he said. Like many of his responses Saturday night, it was a long, careful, nuanced plowing of middle ground.

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