McCain and Obama Largely Avoid Abortion, Gay Marriage

Social issues are largely out of the spotlight in the presidential election

Some groups want to make abortion and other social issues important this cycle.

Some groups want to make abortion and other social issues important this cycle.

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Since Barack Obama and John McCain became the presumptive presidential nominees, they have been attacking each other on the slowing economy, the high price of gas, and the war in Iraq. But one thing this already bruising election has yet to feature is another round of the culture war.

While the two candidates have been more than eager to share their views on, say, nuclear energy, when it comes to same-sex marriage and abortion, two hot-button issues that have loomed large in the past few presidential races, both Obama and McCain have been relatively quiet. The two senators spoke candidly about their faiths, and their views, recently with the Rev. Rick Warren, the evangelical minister of Saddleback Church, but on the campaign trail, they have largely evaded the hard details of social policy, cloaking their language instead in vague references to judicial appointments. "There's an understandable reluctance to address these issues in public forums," says John Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. "For everyone you please, there's someone you irritate."

Still, the candidates' avoidance of these issues has puzzled some activists at both ends of the political spectrum. Obama and McCain have roughly the same position on same-sex marriage—both oppose it and would prefer the matter be left to the states—but when it comes to abortion, in particular, there are few issues they disagree on more. Obama is an unabashed supporter of abortion rights and a defender of Roe v. Wade. As a senator, he received a 100 percent rating from NARAL Pro-Choice America, a group that has given McCain, who has opposed abortion rights throughout his political career, a zero percent rating.

Party line. McCain, to be fair, earned his maverick reputation in the Senate partly because he has veered away from the social conservative hard line on occasion. He has said laws prohibiting abortion should have exceptions for rape, incest, and the life—though not necessarily the health—of the mother, and he voted in 2007 to increase federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, a position that drew silence at Saddleback. But for the most part, McCain follows the party line. "Middle-of-the-road voters think of him in this kind of nebulous maverick way, and they don't associate him with the very strong conservative culture war issues," says Kathryn Kolbert, president of People for the American Way. "But, in fact, he is very strongly antiabortion."

The candidates certainly show no signs of wavering. In their years in the Senate, McCain supported legislation that tried to make unborn children eligible for federal health insurance assistance, a bill opponents said was an attempt to overturn Roe; Obama opposed it. Obama voted to expand access to teen-pregnancy-prevention programs designed to reduce the number of abortions; McCain voted against it.McCain voted for a bill that required parents to be notified when children who are minors request out-of-state abortions; Obama voted against it. McCain, most notably, helped pass the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003, a law prohibiting a late-term abortion procedure that was upheld last year by the Supreme Court, even though it did not include an exception for the health of the mother. Obama, who was not yet in office when the law was passed, said he "strongly disagree[s]" with the court's decision.

Instead of emphasizing this gap, though, both candidates have been treading softly on social policy. In a speechMcCain delivered to the National Right to Life convention last month and again at Saddleback in mid-August, he promised to toe the conservative line on "life" issues and nominate judges "in the cast of" John G. Roberts and Samuel Alito, both conservatives who are considered to be against abortion rights. The Arizona senator has also quietly thrown his support behind initiatives that would ban gay marriage in California and his home state this fall. Obama, meanwhile, who told a gathering at Planned Parenthood last summer that he "will not yield" on the issue of choice, has hardly mentioned the word abortion on the campaign trail. (At Saddleback, Obama deferred on defining when life begins, saying that was "above my pay grade.") He says he prefers civil unions to gay marriage, though after the California Supreme Court declared a state ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional this spring, Obama said he opposed a ballot initiative to overturn the ruling because it would "roll back" rights afforded to domestic partners.