Fred Thompson's stunning error
Fred Thompson was well into a prolonged dialogue about abortion with interviewer Tim Russert on NBC's ''Meet the Press'' on Sunday when he said something stunning for social conservatives: ''I do not think it is a wise thing to criminalize young girls and perhaps their parents as aiders and abettors.'' He went further: ''You can't have a [federal] law'' that ''would take young, young girls . . . and say, basically, we're going to put them in jail.''
Those comments sent e-mails flying across the country reflecting astonishment and rage by pro-life Republicans. No anti-abortion legislation ever has proposed criminal penalties against women having abortions, much less their parents. Jailing women is a spurious issue raised by abortion rights activists.
Thompson's comments revealed astounding lack of sensitivity about the abortion issue. Whether the candidate blurted out what he said or planned it, it reflects failure to realize how much his chances for the presidential nomination depend on social conservatives.
Thompson was a former senator working as television actor when on ''Fox News Sunday'' on March 11 he made himself available for president. I started to take him seriously a month later when a religious conservative activist (call her Miss Jones because she works for a nonpartisan organization) surprised me by telling me she favored Thompson to fill a void among announced presidential hopefuls. She complained that no first-tier candidate -- Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney or John McCain -- fit her model and that overt social conservatives -- Mike Huckabee and Sam Brownback -- could not be nominated.
After Thompson's unannounced candidacy got off to a shaky start, I checked again with Miss Jones shortly after Labor Day. She still supported Thompson, though she seemed less enthusiastic. But Sunday's ''Meet the Press'' changed everything. ''It was the last straw,'' Miss Jones told me.
In his first question on abortion, Russert asked Thompson whether, as a candidate, he could run on the 2004 Republican platform that endorsed a ''human life'' constitutional amendment banning all abortions. ''No,'' Thompson replied, suddenly monosyllabic. ''You would not?'' ''No,'' said Thompson, adding ''that's been my position the entire time I've been in politics.'' In fact, every Republican platform starting in 1980 has endorsed such an amendment and every Republican candidate has been able to run on it.
Thompson thought better of this position after the program (why is it that Mitt Romney is the only candidate who gets the flip-flop charge thrown at him? Because no one in the liberal media thinks for themselves. It is an echo chamber were whoever speaks first is never questioned ). His campaign manager Bill Lacy told me Tuesday that Thompson ''does not want to change the platform'' in 2008. But there was no apology for raising the criminalization chimera. Neither Thompson nor Lacy seemed to understand that what he said had antagonized the social right.
Miss Jones told me she switched off ''Meet the Press'' after Thompson's talk about jailing women. If she had continued, she would have heard him reiterate positions that previously had disturbed social conservatives: opposition to a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and to congressional intervention to save the life of Terri Schiavo.
Thompson's performance coincided with Republican perception of weakness in Sen. Hillary Clinton as the Democratic candidate. But where will Miss Jones go? Giuliani still defends a woman's right to choose. Romney has made the switch from pro-choice, ending previous opposition to a human life amendment (no freaking kidding Mr. Novak? you think this is news? When he was running for Governor in Massachusetts, he said that he was personally pro-life, but said, lets make a deal. I promise not to change the laws and you promice to forgive me for my personal beliefs, which I will not thrust upon you. I respect the rule of law, and understand that Massachusetts is pro-choice... But when he runs for national office, you are suprised that he espouses the beliefs that he had all along? He promiced before that he wouldn't appose abortion, because he knew he could not win. Now he is following his heart, and somehow that is hard for you to understand?). Huckabee is described by one national conservative leader as a member of the ''Christian left.'' That leaves McCain as the major candidate with the clearest position against abortion.