WASHINGTON — Will Donald Trump dare to talk about abortion in Cleveland next week?
During nearly every Republican convention in recent history, the GOP presidential nominee has offered, at the very least, a strong hint that he would oppose abortion. It has been a sure-fire applause line, and an effective way to fire up the Republican base.
But with Trump, as is often the case, there are no sure things.
Trump is a former supporter of abortion rights, and clips of him talking about his belief in “choice” are easy enough to find. Trump now describes himself as “pro-life.” But he has repeatedly bungled his talking points, sent mixed signals on key issues like how he feels about Planned Parenthood, and stayed quiet at times when abortion opponents were looking for him to take a stand.
For all of those problems, though, Trump will be expected to say something — because he’ll need the anti-abortion crowd if he wants to rally a bitterly divided party behind him.
“The bottom line is, Donald Trump, to win this thing, needs a unified convention. So he needs to strike the right chords,” said Craig Shirley, a biographer of Ronald Reagan and founder of a conservative public relations firm.
Most of the recent Republican presidential nominees have worked in some reference to opposing abortion in their convention speeches. Some have been subtle, like Mitt Romney, who promised in 2012 to “respect the sanctity of life.” Others have been more direct, as George W. Bush was in 2000 when he pledged “a culture that values life,” including “the life of the unborn.”
Anti-abortion groups say they want Trump to at least repeat his recent pledges to appoint only anti-abortion justices to the Supreme Court. They would welcome more.
“He’s got a lot of ground, in my mind, to make up,” said Tom McClusky of the March for Life Education and Defense Fund. “I never meet anyone in the pro-life community who’s gung-ho, like, ‘Donald Trump, yay, let’s buy a T-shirt.'”
Even anti-abortion leaders who believe they have an ally in Trump say it’s important that he address the issue, in part because he hasn’t addressed it in a lot of depth in the campaign so far.
“You’re not just speaking to a general audience. You also want to fire up the base, and right now the base is not fired up,” said Penny Young Nance, chief executive officer and president of Concerned Women for America.
“He says he’s pro-life, and I believe him, but there are a couple of statements he’s made that have caused confusion,” said Nance.
Trump’s defenders in the anti-abortion community say he can also just remind his audience of the bottom line: A President Trump would be better for the anti-abortion cause than a President Hillary Clinton.
“Politics thrives on moments of contrast. Trump should absolutely reiterate his pro-life commitments in Cleveland and draw a clear contrast between himself and Hillary Clinton. Her extreme position on abortion is dramatically out of step with most Americans,” Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, said in a statement to STAT.
Trump’s campaign did not respond to multiple requests to discuss his convention plans.
The abortion issue is sensitive enough for even experienced politicians, but it has tripped up Trump more than most recent Republican nominees.
He explained during the first Republican debate last year that “friends of mine years ago were going to have a child, and it was going to be aborted. And it wasn’t aborted. And that child today is a total superstar, a great, great child.”
But that hasn’t always been Trump’s view, and he has had to explain why he has “evolved” since his days as a supporter of abortion rights, when he told NBC’s Tim Russert that “I hate the concept of abortion” but “I just believe in choice.”
He drew heavy criticism in April for saying there should be “some form of punishment” for women who seek abortions — a view that’s not shared by the major anti-abortion groups. He also noted in a later interview that “at this moment, the laws are set. And I think we have to leave it that way.”
When the Supreme Court struck down a Texas law regulating the state’s abortion clinics last month — the biggest abortion ruling from the court in two decades — Trump didn’t say a word for three days, aggravating some anti-abortion groups.
“I think the campaign knows it was a missed opportunity,” said Nance. “We let them know that, and they agreed.”
Other anti-abortion groups, however, have lined up behind Trump, saying he has made specific commitments. In addition to assuring Christian conservatives in New York last month that he’ll appoint anti-abortion judges, Dannenfelser noted that he has promised to sign legislation banning abortion after five months and cut off funding to Planned Parenthood.
Andrea Lafferty, president of the Traditional Values Coalition and a Trump supporter, said his critics are “nitpicking … Throughout the whole campaign, he has made pro-life an issue, and he’s been pretty clear about it.”
Still, Trump caused confusion in the anti-abortion ranks during a February debate, when he said he would defund Planned Parenthood because of abortions — yet added that “millions of women are helped by Planned Parenthood” through its women’s health services.
Nance said she’d like Trump to promise to support legislation that would redirect all of Planned Parenthood’s federal funding to the nation’s community health centers, which she said provide the same women’s health services.
Clarke Forsythe, acting president and senior counsel at Americans United for Life, said Trump “needs to be vocal about the kinds of judges he will appoint to the courts” in his convention speech, and should also pledge to write permanent restrictions into law against the use of public funds for abortions.
Most of the recent Republican nominees have found ways to work the abortion reference into their speeches — although that’s not true of the one who may be most fondly remembered by religious conservatives.
In 1980, when Ronald Reagan accepted the presidential nomination for the first time, he didn’t say a word about abortion. That’s largely because he didn’t talk much about his anti-abortion views in any of his other speeches, even though they were well-known to his supporters in the religious right, according to Shirley, the Reagan biographer.
Instead, Reagan built his ties to religious conservatives in more general ways, Shirley said, such as the meeting with evangelicals in Dallas that summer in which Reagan told them, “I know that you can’t endorse me, but … I endorse you and what you’re doing.”
“He was saying to them that he approved of their work on the life and family issues,” Shirley said.
It was the first George Bush, who had more to prove to win the trust of conservatives, who went farther in 1988.
“Is it right to believe in the sanctity of life and protect the lives of innocent children? My opponent says no — but I say yes. We must change from abortion to adoption,” Bush said. He added for emphasis: “I have an adopted granddaughter. The day of her christening, we wept with joy. I thank God her parents chose life.”
In 2000, George W. Bush, who campaigned hard for the support of religious conservatives, promised to “value life” and vowed to sign legislation banning so-called partial birth abortions. Four years later, he declared that “we must make a place for the unborn child.”
Even John McCain, who had trouble winning the enthusiastic support of religious conservatives, noted in 2008 that “we believe in … a culture of life.”
With such a lengthy history of abortion references in the Republican convention speeches, Trump would be well within the mainstream if he works even a short passage into his speech. Nance says it would be “a fantastic opportunity for him to drill down more.”
And as McClusky put it: “It will be noticed if he doesn’t say anything.”