The major theme of 2015’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) has been 2016, with a full slate of likely Republican presidential contenders jockeying for the approval of conservative activists. It’s hard to imagine anyone capturing the GOP nomination without calling themselves “pro-life,” even though candidates in the 2014 midterm elections tended to shy away from those views to avoid “war on women” critiques.
So it may not be surprising that even in front of this red-meat-friendly audience, references to abortion rights by presidential hopefuls were mostly passing and routine. Anti-choice views often seemed taken for granted, a quick tick in a rhetorical box before moving on to ISIS or Hillary Clinton.
The issues of abortion and gay marriage, in a few cases, were reduced to a “lightning round” of questions from FOX News host Sean Hannity following the speeches.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) replied, “I’m pro-life. It’s as simple as that.”
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) offered, “We should defend every human life from conception to natural death.”
Cruz also briefly mentioned abortion to make a larger point about the hypocrisy of presidential candidates: “Talk is cheap. If a candidate tells you they support life, if a candidate tells you they support marriage, when have you stood and fought?”
Ben Carson, retired neurosurgeon and right-wing darling, also mentioned reproductive rights as a way of calling out perceived hypocrisy. “The left in particular loves to relabel and name things. First, if you’re pro-life, then you’re anti-woman,” Carson said. “And if you’re black and you oppose a progressive agenda, and you’re pro-life, and you’re pro-family, they don’t even know what to call you.”
Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), a popular figure at the conference, didn’t go into the issue during his speech attacking the overreach of government power. Paul supports extreme “personhood” legislation that would criminalize even some forms of birth control. Personhood measures have been roundly rejected by voters in even the most conservative states, with personhood advocates calling for an end to the statewide ballot approach.
Carly Fiorina, who some speculate could be the Republican party’s answer to Hillary Clinton, said, “Every life has potential” and recalled charity work she did distributing diapers to “young mothers who had the courage to bring their children into the world.”
Those comments were at most an allusion to Fiorina’s anti-choice views, though, and were used to support her arguments for offering greater “opportunity” through the free market.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal spent most of his speech attacking Obamacare and Common Core, but his latest attacks on Planned Parenthood went unmentioned.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, on the other hand, boasted about de-funding Planned Parenthood and signing abortion restrictions into law in his state. Walker signed off on a forced ultrasound law and an admitting privileges requirement that is being challenged in the courts.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie also made a point of mentioning that he had vetoed funding for Planned Parenthood five times in his state’s budget. He went on at some length relative to other speakers.
“I ran as a pro-life candidate in 2009 unapologetically, spoke at the rally on the steps of the statehouse,” he said. “I was the first governor to ever speak at a pro-life rally on the steps of the statehouse in the state of New Jersey.”
Jeb Bush also went on longer than most, after Hannity asked the former Florida governor about the state’s “Choose Life” license plates and whether he had any regrets over the Terry Schiavo case. He boasted of being the first state to have such license plates to support “crisis pregnancy centers,” anti-choice facilities that dole out misleading information to pregnant women, hoping to convince them not to choose abortion.
Bush didn’t regret the Schiavo case, he said, because “the most vulnerable in our society need to be protected.”
But Bush, Walker, and Christie all had something to prove, which showed in their (somewhat) lengthier remarks.
Some CPAC attendees publicly planned to walk out of Bush’s speech, although the walkout ended up being smaller than anticipated. Bush is often criticized by the right for his perceived moderate views on immigration.
Christie used to be pro-choice, and hasn’t quite been able to live that down with the base. He’s also been dogged by scandal, and faced by far the highest level of scrutiny from an interviewer on stage. While Cruz got to tell Hannity why he loves America so much, Christie got a grilling from conservative radio host Laura Ingraham.
During the 2014 elections, Walker came out with ads that tried to portray him as supporting a woman’s right to choose.
The Republican Party isn’t likely to abandon its anti-choice hardline anytime soon, but if CPAC is any indication, candidates may spend less time talking about it.