John McCain and abortion: Did he hint at GOP shift?

Sen. John McCain said Sunday that his only role in the abortion debate is to 'state his opinion,' and 'leave the issue alone.' Some GOP strategists say a softening of the tone on social issues is necessary after the disappointments of the recent election.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona finishes speaking at a press conference at the Capitol in Washington earlier this month.

Perhaps the Republican pendulum is swinging back.

Two years ago, it seemed for a time that Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona might be swept away in the tea party tide, forcing him to tack far to the right to fend off a primary challenge. On Sunday, however, Senator McCain took a clear and controversial step back toward the political center, suggesting on Fox News that it was not his place to tell a woman whether or not it is her right to have an abortion.

Of course, McCain is more at liberty to make such statements because he is four years away from another election. Still, the comment – even by someone who has been historically centrist – suggests that some Republicans feel a new freedom from strict party orthodoxy following the disappointments of the Nov. 6 election.

Indeed, the comment came in response to a question about how Republicans should evolve after GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney lost by wide margins among Latinos, youth, and single women.

"As far as young women are concerned, absolutely. I don't think people like me – I can state my opinion on abortion. But other than that, leave the issue alone," he said. Probed further, he added, "I would allow people to have those opinions and respect those opinions. I'm proud of my pro-life position and record, but if someone disagrees with me, I respect your views."

Such sentiments come straight from the playbook of some Republican operatives, who say the November election showed that the party needs a makeover to expand its base of support beyond white males.

"The GOP cannot continue to engage in fire-and-brimstone rhetoric with respect to social issues," Republican strategist Ford O'Connell told the Monitor's Husna Haq. "The GOP mantra for the past decade has generally been, 'Our way or the highway.'... And while the GOP is primarily a pro-life, traditional-marriage party, it can maintain those positions and win in a national election, but it has to acknowledge that not everyone may agree with those positions."

Mr. O'Connell and others are urging the party to focus on the economy and national security, which they say are the party's strengths. Not surprisingly, McCain put his abortion comments in this context, first saying the party had to be about something positive, and then adding that one reason to leave abortion alone was the importance of the "economic situation and, frankly, national security situation."

The Republican shift has also been apparent in some senators' refusal to abide by the no-new-tax pledge that was once GOP gospel. Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia was the latest to say he would no longer be bound to the pledge, and McCain echoed his sentiments Sunday. McCain said he is open to closing tax loopholes to pay down federal deficits – a violation of the no-new-tax pledge by Americans for Tax Reform.

On ABC's "This Week" Sunday, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina concurred: "When you're $16 trillion in debt, the only pledge we should be making to each other is to avoid becoming Greece."

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