Ryan Counsels Strategic Dishonesty On Abortion

It’s interesting to see the two very different story-lines assigned to Paul Ryan’s speech to a fundraising event for the Susan B. Anthony List last night. One, exemplified by Brother Benen, emphasizes his message that Republicans should not modify their commitment to hard-core antichoice politics one whit. The other, pursued by (among others) ABC’s Shushanna Walshe, is all about Ryan’s plea to antichoicers to “broaden their reach,” and even find common ground with pro-choice Americans.

Both story-lines are accurate, because the main burden of Ryan’s speech was to assure antichoice ultras (among which the SBA List is very prominent) that an incremental strategy of hiding its ultimate goals beneath reasonable-sounding half-measures or symbolic victories is the best way to secure the supreme goal of an abortion-free America (presumably defined as also free of those contraceptive devices and drugs that interfere with the development of “persons” whom others consider fertilized ova).

This represents, of course, an old argument within the antichoice movement that should not be confused with any disagreement on basic principles and objectives. Salon‘s Irin Carmon recently described it in the context of “personhood initiatives” and early abortion bans popular among state-level conservatives by quoting from a memo by long-time antichoice stalwart and right-wing legal beagle James Bopp:

The memo is a work of astonishing frankness. “The pro-life movement was energized by Roe in 1973, but wise leaders recognized from the beginning that one of their foremost tasks was to keep abortion alive as an issue,” Bopp writes. His preferred strategy: Electing as many “pro-life” leaders as possible, while slowly chipping away at abortion rights and public support for them. “A vital battle stratagem is to choose proper terrain — favorable to you, unfavorable to your foe,” he wrote. “To change the hearts and minds of the public on abortion, it is necessary for pro-lifers to frame the debate to their advantage. Pro-life leaders have wisely focused on this strategy.” The key example: “The debate over partial-birth abortion has furthered this strategy because it has forced the proabortion camp to publicly defend a particularly visible and gruesome practice.” Indeed, when the issue came before Congress, 17 Senate Democrats voted for the ban, which restricted a rare procedure.

The trouble with this incrementalist approach is that it’s often difficult to counsel patience among people who think they are living in a latter-day Nazi Germany where many millions of the unborn have already been murdered and every day dawns on another Holocaust–and where “keep your powder dry” advice is suspected of being little more than a cynical gambit to keep the GOP free from association with The Movement’s deeply unpopular aims. Hence Ryan combined his “broaden your reach” message with assurances that a stealth strategy doesn’t obscure the common dream of a land free of reproductive rights, where abortion isn’t just outlawed by “isn’t even considered.”

Particular issues aside, Ryan is exemplifying the ancient habit, practiced by all sorts of sophisticated ideologues (most famously the Communists in their “popular front” phases, but also the Jesuits, who once reportedly converted a big chunk of the Japanese ruling class by suppressing any mention of the Crucifixion before the Dominicans ratted them out to the Vatican), of strategic dishonesty, or to put it more favorably, of selective candor. Why alarm Americans with talk of zygotes being “persons” or of banning birth control methods when you can instead gradually get them use to identifying as “pro-life,” and to support bans on rare methods of or motives for abortion that they’d never consider themselves, before unveiling the True Agenda?

This sort of pitch comes naturally to Paul Ryan, who deploys strategic dishonesty on a broad range of issues, most notably his intentions towards New Deal and Great Society programs he pretends to want to “save” by gradually reducing benefits or turning them over to the states or the private marketplace. It is kind of important to take notice when the mask slips and The Coach reveals the game-plan to The Team.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.