Hobgoblin Alert: Behind Barack Obama’s False Abortion Ad

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The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.” –H.L. Mencken

If you live in a swing state, your nation sends its apologies. Perhaps you can just break your television. No grown man or woman should be subjected to something like $1 billion in negative advertising, which is what you are about to face. For everyone else, here’s a sneak peak at what you will be missing, the latest attack ad from Barack Obama, which is centered on a clear untruth.

Here is the part that is false: “Romney backed a law that outlaws all abortion even in cases of rape or incest.” Romney has not backed a law like that.

His stated position since 2005, when he went from being a pro-choice politician to a pro-life politician, is that he supports an exemption for rape, incest and risk to the life of the mother. He said it here to the Des Moines Register in December of 2011, and here in the National Review in June of 2011. He said it all through the 2007 campaign. He even said it in 2005 in a Boston Globe Op-Ed announcing the end of his pro-choice approach to politics. “I believe that abortion is the wrong choice except in cases of incest, rape, and to save the life of the mother,” he wrote. Not much nuance there.

But the hobgoblin of a politician opposing abortion with an exemption for rape and incest is far less scary than the hobgoblin of a politician who believes a raped woman must bring the resulting child to term. So the Obama campaign has made up a scary falsehood. They justify the falsehood by pointing to this single exchange from a 2007 debate, in which Romney says he would hypothetically like the idea of an America with a broad consensus that all abortion was a bad thing. Here is the exchange:

QUESTIONER: Hello, my name is AJ. I’m from Millstone, New Jersey. I would all of the candidates to give an answer on this. If hypothetically, Roe v. Wade was overturned, and the Congress passed a federal ban on all abortions and it came to your desk, would you sign it? Yes or no? …
ROMNEY: I agree with Senator Thompson, which is we should overturn Roe v. Wade and return these issues to the states. I would welcome a circumstance where there was such a consensus in this country that we said, we don’t want to have abortion in this country at all, period. That would be wonderful. I’d be delighted.
CNN’s ANDERSON COOPER: The question is: Would you sign that bill?
ROMNEY: Let me say it. I’d be delighted to sign that bill. But that’s not where we are. That’s not where America is today. Where America is is ready to overturn Roe v. Wade and return to the states that authority. But if the Congress got there, we had that kind of consensus in that country, terrific.

This was not a discussion about whether or not there should be a rape or incest exemption. And Romney never said he would sign a federal law outlawing abortion (with or without the exemption, it is not clear) unless there was a consensus that in the country that this was the right thing to do. “But that’s not where we are,” Romney said. For both of those reasons, there is no contradiction with Romney’s dozens of statements before and after this debate supporting a rape and incest exemption.

The Obama campaign further argues that since Romney supports the Republican platforms of 2004 and 2008, his clear statements supporting an exemption for rape and incest can be ignored. The platforms call for “Human Life Amendment to the Constitution” and legislation to “to make clear that the Fourteenth Amendment’s protections apply to unborn children.” This is an old debate that resurfaces every four years. George W. Bush made it clear in 2000 that the platform was intentionally vague, so that it would make room for a rape and incest exemption. Here is an exchange from a debate Bush had with John McCain in the Republican Primary in 2000:

McCain: George, do you believe in the exemption in abortion, case of abortion, for rape, incest and life of the mother?
Bush: Yes, I do. I do.
McCain: Then, you know, it’s interesting, you were talking about printed material that’s mailed out. Here’s one that says that George W. Bush supports the pro-life plank. The pro-life plank.
Bush: I do.
McCain: Yes. So in other words …
Bush: Yes …
McCain: … your position is that you believe there’s an exemption for rape, incest and the life of the mother, but you want the platform that you’re supposed to be leading to have no exemption.
Bush: Yes, but …
McCain: Help me out there, will you? …
Bush: The platform talks about – it doesn’t talk about what specifically should be in the Constitutional amendment. … The platform speaks about a Constitutional amendment. It doesn’t refer to how that Constitutional amendment ought to be defined.

Bush never wavered from this position. In 2006, his White House spokesman continued to say that Bush supported a rape and incest exemption, two years after Bush reelection on a platform the Obama campaign now thinks makes Romney oppose the exemption. In fact, Romney has, on this issue, the same position at George W. Bush. For that matter, Romney has the same position at John McCain, who also supported the rape and incest exemption, and even attempted to explicitly include it in the GOP platform, without success.

Will there be a cost for Obama in running an ad that is so clearly false? Only if he wants voters to believe he is not a typical politician. As it stands, neither man running to lead this country seem to be having trouble sleeping at night. Both campaigns love to quote fact checkers to defend themselves, and then put out ads that contain clear falsehoods, which are condemned by fact checkers. Remember the Romney campaign’s first 2012 spot, which suggested that Obama said “if we keep talking about the economy we’re going to lose,” when Obama was actually quoting someone else saying that? It too was a hobgoblin, which the Romney campaign justified by putting out a press release that admitted the deception. Obama even calls his own fact checking operation the Truth Team, which is a lofty title increasingly easy to disassemble.

But perhaps Obama only says he wants people to view him as something other than a typical politician, which is a different thing altogether. In that case, you play the game like the rest, and try to put on a braver face. To quote America’s greatest cynic, H.L. Mencken again, “A good politician, under democracy, is quite as unthinkable as an honest burglar.”