The Washington Times

You could have knocked me over with a feather, but what was George W. Bush’s best moment in the town hall debate on Friday? Why, his answer to the question on taxpayer funding of abortion, that’s what.

The question was asked by audience member Sarah Degenhart, whom I mention because she deserves credit for eliciting a rare moment of genuineness and spontaneity from these overprogrammed debate formats (and kudos to moderator Charles Gibson for including it). It had edge: “Senator Kerry, suppose you are speaking with a voter who believed abortion is murder and the voter asked for reassurance that his or her tax dollars would not go to support abortion, what would you say to that person?”

Mr. Kerry is resolutely pro-choice, of course, and as a general proposition he is comfortable and effective in making his case for a woman’s right to choose. In a binary world of “yes” or “no” on abortion rights, he is solidly on-message, which entails articulating an unambiguous defense of the legal right to abortion notwithstanding one’s private views – and then an attack on those on the other side for seeking to impose their own personal opinions on others. This is a framework, moreover, in which Mr. Kerry feels perfectly comfortable politically, insofar as most Americans do not support a ban on abortion.

This binary framework of “pro-life” or “pro-choice,” I would suggest, is also one in which Mr. Bush is at his least comfortable. Mr. Bush is pro-life, but he has not used his presidency to try to advance a ban on abortion, even at merely a rhetorical level. In fact, his most noteworthy decision touching on the subject, to allow federal funding for research on existing stem-cell lines from embryos (the subject of another question of greater-than-usual interest Friday), actually divided the pro-life community. Mr. Bush won support from prominent evangelical Protestants but condemnation from Catholics. He could, of course, have retained the support of all this community with a decision against all federal funding. But he scored a political victory by evoking only partial opposition, which also weakened the overall influence of the pro-life wing of the GOP.

But Ms. Degenhart’s question resists the binary framework. It’s situated in the gray area between pro-life and pro-choice, the space Bill Clinton managed to navigate with his formulation that abortion should be “safe, legal and rare.” Mr. Kerry has a coherent position on the question of taxpayer funding: Abortion is a woman’s constitutional right and therefore ought to be available without regard to her means. But he is no Bill Clinton. Careful scrutiny of the transcript will reveal his position, but listening to it, one heard so much gobbledygook.

Here’s the critical part of the answer: “You have to afford people their constitutional rights. And that means being smart about allowing people to be fully educated, to know what their options are in life, and making certain that you don’t deny a poor person the right to be able to have whatever the Constitution affords them if they can’t afford it otherwise.” When you consider that what Mr. Kerry is saying here is that the right to abortion implies the right to have your abortion paid for by taxpayers, a reason for obfuscation perhaps becomes apparent.

He went on to say that “helping families around the world to be able to make a smart decision about family planning” would “help prevent AIDS” and “unwanted children” as well as “passing on the moral responsibility that is expressed in your question.” Mercifully, his time was up before he could offer further unhelpful addenda.

Mr. Bush began with a crack, one of the half dozen or so with which he won the audience in the room that evening: “I’m trying to decipher that.” After a beat, he drove his point home: “My answer is, we’re not going to spend taxpayers’ money on abortion.” Full stop.

He then proceeded with authority into the gray area: “This is an issue that divides America, but certainly reasonable people can agree on how to reduce abortions in America.” He then drew a contrast between measures he has supported and Mr. Kerry has opposed: a ban on “partial-birth” abortion, parental notification, the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, his explanation of which was a masterpiece of folksy concision: “If you’re a mom and you’re pregnant and you get killed, the murderer gets tried for two cases, not just one.”

Mr. Bush had help from his questioner in getting past the binary question of the constitutional right to an abortion or a ban on abortion. But the desire to get past it and into the gray zone has been apparent throughout his administration. If “reasonable people can agree on how to reduce abortions,” it will reflect prior agreement that reducing abortion is desirable. Mr. Bush is comfortable making that case, and Mr. Kerry is tongue-tied.