Damon Linker: How Obama found himself in trouble this time: charting the ignominious history of "born alive" abortion legislation

Roundup: Historians' Take

As recently as six weeks ago, Barack Obama hoped to use his moderation and facility with religiously informed rhetoric to inspire a portion of the evangelical vote to defect to the Democratic Party in 2008--a move that might usher in a broader electoral realignment. But events during the past week may very well have derailed this plan for good. On right-wing websites, cable news programs, and near-mainstream newspapers, conservatives are doing their indignant best to spread the word that, as an Illinois state legislator, Obama refused to vote for a bill that protects a child "born alive" in a botched abortion. That makes the senator's record on abortion, in the words of Commentary's Peter Wehner, "as extreme as one can possibly be." As evidence that Obama's position is (in Wehner's words again) "extreme, inhumane, and outright brutal," conservatives are pointing out that only 15 members of the U.S. House voted against the federal version of the bill--the Born Alive Infant Protection Act of 2002--and that it passed the Senate by voice vote with no dissent.

The campaign's response to the controversy shows that it recognizes the damage it could do to Obama's ambitions: Instead of defending the vote, Obama and his surrogates have sought to excuse it. First they insisted he would have supported the Illinois bill had its language resembled the federal version. Then, when it came to light that the language of the two bills was virtually identical, they claimed that the candidate opposed the bill because it had no "neutrality clause"--a statement ensuring that it wouldn't curtail existing abortion rights. And yet it appears that the final version of the bill contained precisely such language--a fact that apparently did nothing to change Obama's mind about its merits. If conservatives get their way, these crumbling excuses, along with Obama's refusal to answer a question about when a baby acquires human rights at Rick Warren's recent Saddleback church event, will transform Obama in the eyes of evangelicals from an electoral temptation into a morally and politically radioactive "Senator Infanticide." (That's what the National Review called him on its website's homepage yesterday.)

Democrats have every reason to lament this turn of events, but they should not consider it a matter of simple bad luck. On the contrary, Obama, in failing to "support" children "born alive," has fallen into a trap meticulously constructed and laid by the theoconservative intellectuals who have exercised so much influence over the religious right these past several decades....

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