Gore's About Face on Issues Sparks Some Tough Scrutiny
By JEANNE CUMMINGS Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
LOS ANGELES -- Vice President Al Gore says he has always supported a woman's right to have an abortion, even when he was voting to prohibit federal funding of it in the early 1980s.
But former Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder, one of the vice president's supporters and a leader in the abortion-rights movement, remembers a different Al Gore. She recalls how he used to tell the story of his daughter pointing to a magazine photograph of a fetus and saying, "Baby." In those days, Ms. Schroeder and Mr. Gore worked together on measures to improve baby formula and car safety seats. But on abortion rights, Ms. Schroeder says, "we were very saddened that he was not with us."
Today, Mr. Gore is squarely in the abortion-rights camp. His journey to that position spotlights a central challenge for the presidential candidate as his party's convention gets under way, because it exemplifies a modern political conundrum: Is it a sign of weakness or wisdom to change one's views about a complex issue?
For Mr. Gore, explaining just why he has changed his position on abortion looms as important because it highlights a central question voters have about Mr. Gore: What does he believe in? A recent Wall Street Journal poll shows that only about a third of registered voters feel that Mr. Gore has fully explained his background and values. Just a quarter of the respondents say they know the priorities and policies he has outlined for his presidency.
Even more troublesome for the vice president, the poll shows that the Republican presidential candidate, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, has an edge of 40% to 34% when voters are asked whom they trust to do the right thing when making decisions.
In an interview last week while he was being driven through Philadelphia, Mr. Gore said the image that many Americans have of him is an inevitable result of his office. "The role of vice president is an honorable one, but it's not one in which you launch any of your own initiatives," he says. "People who know you in that role don't know you as a person or as a candidate for president."
Mr. Gore's allies also say his evolution on issues is the product of growth and learning, and keeping an open mind. "He has very fixed principles, but he has a very restless intellect," says Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Mr. Gore's vice-presidential running mate. "Things that made sense to us when we were younger, no longer make sense," Mr. Lieberman says.
Others see Mr. Gore's shifts on abortion as the inevitable result of modern politics. As moderate voters have abandoned the primary process, the field has been left to the extreme wings in both parties, and any misstep can be fatal. Ms. Schroeder, who served in the House for 24 years, puts it this way: "You deviate one degree, and your head is in a noose."
But Mr. Gore's efforts to reinvent himself have supplied fodder to his political foes. His high-profile shifts on such controversial issues as guns, tobacco and the environment -- on which he moved from liberal-green to moderate -- have drawn criticism that he has been guided more by political expediency than by deeply held principles.
On guns, for instance, Mr. Gore once was considered an ally by the National Rifle Association. In 1985, he opposed a 14-day waiting period for handgun purchases. But six years later, after a rise in urban gun violence, Mr. Gore co-sponsored the Brady Bill, which included a five-day waiting period. His presidential platform calls for additional restrictions on handgun purchases. The NRA is pouring its resources into Mr. Bush's campaign.
The vice president is hardly the first politician to rethink his position on an issue. Former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley reversed course on ethanol subsidies to enhance his appeal in Iowa during the Democratic primary. House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt's abortion record mirrors that of Mr. Gore.
One of the most famous recent political flip-flops came from former President Bush, the Texas governor's father, who pledged not to raise taxes and then did. The younger Mr. Bush's brief public record has made it easier for him to avoid inconsistencies -- but his running mate, former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, has acknowledged that he would "tweak" some of his votes in Congress if he had a chance to go back and cast them again.
Mr. Gore was a student at Vanderbilt Law School, in Nashville, when the landmark Roe vs. Wade ruling was issued in 1973, protecting a woman's right to abortion on the grounds of privacy. He says he remembers "going through it very carefully at the time. Absorbing it and supporting it. It made sense to me and, even during the years I opposed federal funding, I continued to support Roe vs. Wade."
But three years later, as a candidate seeking votes in a conservative and rural Tennessee district, he wasn't nearly so clear. In an interview with the Nashville Banner, for instance, he said: "I don't believe a woman's freedom to live her own life, in all cases, outweighs the fetus's right to life." Once in office, Mr. Gore adopted what was then considered an acceptable compromise position, particularly for Southern Democrats: He supported abortion rights, but wanted to prohibit federal funding of it. That was also the position held by President Carter, the former Georgia governor.
A Change in the Climate
By 1980, however, the more-liberal political climate of the years following Roe vs. Wade had changed. President Reagan was in the White House, Republicans ruled the Senate, and the Rev. Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority was flourishing. Both camps in the abortion battle had strong enough troops to wage a real war.
In the Senate, abortion-rights opponents opened fire on two fronts: seeking passage of a law that would overturn Roe vs. Wade by defining the start of life at conception and a constitutional amendment that would allow states to write their own abortion laws. In the House, the battle continued to center largely on the issue of public funding, but abortion-rights opponents also mounted challenges to health-insurance coverage and the distribution of contraceptives.
As the sides were defined more clearly, pressure mounted on moderates like Mr. Gore. At the same time, medical advances were providing sharper views of the developing fetus and the early appearance of recognizable human attributes. Mr. Gore's staff members began to express concern about some of the legislation -- particularly proposals that restricted health coverage -- moving through Congress, former aid Bill Mason recalls.
'Deep Personal Conviction'
It was during this period, in 1983, that Mr. Gore wrote to constituents a letter with which he is repeatedly confronted today. It read, in part: "As you know, I have strongly opposed federal funding of abortions. In my opinion, it is wrong to spend federal funds for what is arguably the taking of a human life." The letter goes on: "It is my deep personal conviction that abortion is wrong. I hope that some day we will see the current outrageously large number of abortions drop sharply." Nowhere in the letter did he mention Roe vs. Wade.
The letter and Mr. Gore's voting record gave comfort to those fighting to prohibit abortion. Indeed, after meeting with Mr. Gore in 1984 and discussing his position, Mary Shearin, a former Tennessee representative of the National Right to Life Committee, left convinced that she had secured his vote for a constitutional amendment overturning Roe vs. Wade.
During the meeting, Mr. Gore peppered his guests with questions about what safeguards were included in the legislation for victims of rape and incest and commented on other court cases, recalls Mrs. Shearin. A second meeting on the issue was held later in Mr. Gore's Washington office. "He was not just saying things and patting us on the heads and sending us on our way. He was very versed on the subject," Mrs. Shearin recalls.
But Mr. Gore had declined to sponsor similar legislation in the House, and he declined again in the Senate. In fact, Mrs. Shearin's meetings occurred at about the same time Mr. Gore began rethinking his opposition to federal funding.
Accumulation of Stories
Mrs. Schroeder and other advocates of abortion rights had never given up on winning him over on the issue of funding. Prohibiting federal funding only hurt poor women and was tantamount to saying only women of means can have abortions, they argued. Over the years, Mr. Gore heard countless personal stories from women about the complications and circumstances in their lives that led them to consider abortion.
No single story changed his mind, he says. Rather, "it was an accumulation of stories about the variety of circumstances that must be taken into account" that led him to conclude that government shouldn't be involved, and "a woman's right to choose should never be taken away, regardless of that woman's income."
Mr. Gore's critics see a more self-serving reason for his conversion. The 1988 presidential campaign loomed, and he was planning to throw his hat in the ring. "He sold his soul" for advancement in the Democratic Party, says Douglas Johnson, head of the National Right to Life Committee.
The change appeared to happen in 1986 and is chronicled in the 77 votes Mr. Gore cast on abortion or related proposals during his 16 years of service in Congress. Before 1986, he voted with the anti-abortion-rights crowd about 80% of the time. From 1986 on, his voting record became 100% in support of abortion rights.
An Issue on TV
Abortion was not a major issue during his short-lived campaign for president in 1988. Thus, it wasn't until 1992, when he joined President Clinton's ticket, that his record was revisited and Mr. Gore surprised many by trying to minimize his policy shift or to avoid discussing it at all. In a 1992 television interview, for instance, Paula Zahn, then a CBS correspondent, asked Mr. Gore about his early opposition to federal funding of abortions. Rather than answer the question directly, Mr. Gore acted as though she had focused on abortion rights. "My position has never changed. I've always held the same position, and hold the same position now," he said to a sputtering Ms. Zahn.
In the same year, he was asked by ABC's Sam Donaldson to provide "as much specificity as possible where you stand on federal funding for abortions? In the past, you have voted against that." His response: "It depends on the circumstances, Sam," Mr. Gore said, and then offered alengthy plug for the Clinton-Gore universal-health-care proposal.
Just last month, Mr. Gore faced tough questioning by Tim Russert of NBC's "Meet the Press" as the commentator tried to corner the vice president on his 1984 support of legislation that defined "person" to include "unborn children from the moment of conception."
In one segment, Mr. Russert asked: "Do you believe that life begins at conception?"
Mr. Gore said: "No, I believe there is a difference. You know, I believe that Roe vs. Wade decision wisely embodies the kind of common-sense judgment that most Americans share."
Mr. Russert confronted the vice president with his own comments and votes from the past two decades. Mr. Gore's answers became more confusing. Mr. Russert pushed: "You were calling fetuses innocent human life, and now you don't believe life begins at conception. I'm just trying to find out, when do you believe life begins?"
"Well, look," Mr. Gore began, "the Roe vs. Wade decision proposes an answer to that question which is, in my view, a common-sense approach that there is a development process during which the burden kind of shifts over time. "
A Southern Democrat
The odd part about all of Mr. Gore's contortions is that his record on abortion is so easy to obtain and not unique, especially for a Southern Democrat. In fact, so many high-ranking Democrats traveled down the same path that Alice Travis Germond, of the National Abortion Rights Action League, justifies Naral's endorsement of Mr. Gore by saying: "We're not giving out lifetime achievement awards."
As his car speeds toward the Philadelphia airport, Mr. Gore quickly grows leery of the series of questions focusing on abortion: His personal struggle with the issue; what drove his change on federal funding; and the scrutiny that followed it. He adjusts his jacket and carefully selects his words.
"It's an inherently hard issue, but it's not hard for me to tell you how I feel about it," he says. "I support a woman's right to choose."
But Mr. Gore is less specific about the underlying question of abortion. "Before you get to the subject of abortion, you have to first deal with the subject of choice. Who is going to make the decision? And, to me, that right has to remain with the woman, period."