Scott Walker’s cagey approach to abortion, and his 2016 opportunity

Gary Bauer President, American Values
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Last fall, Scott Walker released a book titled Unintimidated. The memoir-cum-campaign manifesto chronicles how the Wisconsin governor stared down labor union leaders to reform collective bargaining laws and cut his state’s bloated budget.

Unintimidated is an apt adjective to describe how Walker championed important economic reforms against the (sometimes literal) assaults of his political opponents.

While I have not made a decision about who I’ll support for president in 2016, Governor Walker’s courageous battle against Big Labor in Wisconsin was inspiring enough to secure him a spot on any short list of GOP contenders.

That’s why it pains me so much to say that, on his current path, Walker is unlikely to make it to the White House. Not because of his bold defense of economic reforms, but, rather, because he has become so timid on values issues.

On abortion in particular it appears that Walker has been intimidated, or at least somewhat cowed, by those who insist that Republicans should keep quiet. These days, Walker’s position seems to be, ‘sure, I’m pro-life, but I’d rather not talk about it.’

In November, Walker told The Hill newspaper about Republicans: “For us politically, it doesn’t make sense for us not to be focused on the fiscal and economic issues. The left wants us to get off of economic and fiscal issues. … The lesson after last November … was we have to focus on the things we care about and lead on those, and those are fiscal and economic issues.”

Actually, the left wants to convince conservatives to stay silent on social issues, which would allow it to mischaracterize conservative positions and leave its own extreme positions unexamined and unchallenged.

At a December breakfast with The Christian Science Monitor, Walker said about abortion, “I don’t focus on that; I don’t obsess with it.”

Such comments are surprising coming from someone with such a stellar pro-life record. As a student at Marquette University, he led the school’s chapter of Students for Life. He was a reliable pro-life vote in his nine years in the Wisconsin State Assembly. And as governor he has signed several pieces of pro-life legislation, from a bill to stop abortion funding in Obamacare to legislation outlawing webcam abortions to a measure to defund Planned Parenthood.

But now Walker is downplaying that record. When The Hill brought up his pro-life credentials, Walker demurred, saying, “I signed hundreds of bills the last couple years. There’s literally a handful that relate to that issue.”

“I’m still pro-life,” he added before dismissing how important the laws he signed were to voters. Defunding Planned Parenthood, he said, “gets some activists worked up, but taxpayers say ‘What’s the big deal there?’”

Last July, when Walker signed several pro-life bills, he did so without the fanfare that typically accompanies major bill signings. He signed the legislation behind closed doors the day after Independence Day, a Friday, when it was sure to get little media attention. His only announcement about the legislation was a generic tweet: “Spent the morning signing 18 bills into law.”

Walker’s downplaying of abortion has been more than rhetorical. Walker now seems to be backing away from support for several pro-life bills that may soon reach his desk. One would ensure that state taxpayer funds are not used to fund abortions for state employees and exempt religious entities from having to pay for health insurance coverage that includes abortion-inducing drugs; another would outlaw sex-selection abortions; and another would allow for voluntary purchases of Choose Life specialty license plates, like those available in many states.

Having already passed the state assembly, these bills are being held up in the Republican-controlled Senate. The consensus from Wisconsin political observers is that Walker could easily get them passed in the Senate and to his desk for signing — if he made them a priority.

But there is persistent speculation that the governor’s office has issued orders to Senate leaders to keep the bills from moving. In fact, in early February, Wisconsin Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, a Republican, reversed course and announced that he would not bring legislation to the floor that would stop state tax money from funding abortions through state health insurance plans.

Governor Walker seems to have bought into one of the more pernicious political myths in recent elections: that abortion is a losing issue for Republican candidates. But the polls tell a different story.

In Wisconsin, where Walker is running for reelection this fall, a November poll found that a majority of likely voters hold pro-life views and that a plurality support a law to require that women have the option of viewing an ultrasound before an abortion. A majority also support a law prohibiting abortion after 20 weeks based on the unborn child’s ability to feel pain.

Nationally, numerous polls have shown that Americans have become somewhat more pro-life. An early March CNN poll found that 58 percent of Americans feel abortion should be illegal under most or all circumstances. And 56 percent oppose public funding of abortion, an issue that one of the Wisconsin bills addresses.

Contrary to what Republican consultants and elections experts are saying, I believe the evidence is overwhelming that a one-dimensional presidential candidate cannot win. A candidate who focuses on issues of the pocketbook while ignoring issues of the heart and soul will be doomed in 2016, just as Mitt Romney was in 2012.

There would be no better way for Walker to cement his pro-life bonafides than to get these three pro-life bills through the final step in the legislative process before the current regular legislation session is scheduled to end on April 3. The enactment — or not — of this pro-life legislation will send a strong signal to the millions of pro-lifers across the county at a time when they are searching for a candidate who can lead them to victory in 2016.

Former presidential candidate Gary Bauer is president of American Values and chairman of the Campaign for Working Families