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Eleanor Clift was a groundbreaking journalist for publications such as Newsweek in its heyday—she is now a columnist at The Daily Beast—and who many will remember on TV’s The McLaughlin Group every Sunday in the 80s, 90s, and beyond. There she battled, often as the only woman and a liberal feminist, against Pat Buchanan and other conservative white men.
Clift comes on my SiriusXM program every Friday, and it’s her experience and knowledge of history that are so fascinating and interesting when we talk about the issues of today. She’s covered every presidential campaign and every presidential administration since 1976.
So on the anniversary of the Dobbs decision, she gave us the long view of how Roe v. Wade was handed down and how conservatives accepted it—including the Southern Baptist Convention. But she also remembers how evangelicals, coopted by Ronald Reagan from Jimmy Carter and making an alliance with conservative Catholics, soon began organizing fiercely to reverse it.
Listen in to the interview and let me know your thoughts. Below is a transcript edited for space and clarity.
Michelangelo Signorile: So on this day, the anniversary of the fall of Roe v. Wade, lots of discussion looking back on how things have changed in a year.
And we now have 15 states that ban abortions completely. I wanted to ask you as a journalist who's covered this issue for many years and as a woman, about your experience looking back at the trajectory of this issue, going back to, of course, when Roe v. Wade was affirmed, was decided by the Supreme Court, and then, as you saw, that movement within the conservative movement and the Republican Party. And if you ever thought we'd come to this, this day that happened a year ago today.
Eleanor Clift: Well, to start at the beginning, I guess, when Roe v. Wade was passed, it was not all that controversial in the sense that you didn't have two very distinct camps that saw each other as enemies. You had the Catholic Church clearly opposed, but you had the governor of California, who was Ronald Reagan, sign a very progressive abortion rights law. New York also had legislation along those lines. And the Southern Baptist Church even put out a statement sort of acknowledging that. For some people, ending a pregnancy was the right thing to do, considering their circumstances. I don't remember exactly how it was phrased, but they basically gave a positive nod to the legislation.
And there it was for some time until the conservative right recognized that they could bring Catholics and Southern evangelicals together on the issue of opposing abortion. And those were two powerful blocs of voters that were then politicized around this issue. Before that, the right had been campaigning against tax exemption, ending tax exemption for, in particular, Bob Jones University, the evangelical university that was getting huge tax breaks. And that came to an end, actually, when Gerald Ford was in the White House. But Jimmy Carter was kind of blamed for it. And when Carter ran for re-election in 1980, he realized that his whole base of evangelical voters had drifted away or been stolen away by the Reagan camp. And that became the beginning, in my mind, of the partisan right division on this issue.
MS: A lot of people don't know that Jimmy Carter was an evangelical Christian, and that evangelical Christians had not really been involved in politics much before that because they saw politics as, like, the devil's doing, right? And he brought them in, you know, because he was an evangelical Christian. And then the Reagan Republicans really saw them as an organizing force.
EC: That's right. And I think in 1984, when Reagan ran for re-election, the Republican platform was much clearer in its opposition to abortion rights than it had been before. And then in 1994—now we're sprinting ahead here in terms of politics—but when the Republicans took the House for the first time in 40 years, they elected a lot of women, or certainly compared to previous standards, and women who had been trained as activists in the anti-abortion movement. Before that, as a reporter covering these issues in Washington, there was kind of an assumption that the women who made it to the House of Representatives were generally liberal on what we call women's issues. The Republican women were pro-choice.
And that began to change when you had pro-choice being on the Republican side, being challenged from the right. And so, you know, it was both gradual and it was sudden that this issue became incredibly partisan. But what you said at the beginning of our conversation here, there was an assumption that Roe v. Wade was here to stay, that it was nailed down into our constitutional rights.
And so Republicans could say the most outrageous things about abortion rights, knowing or believing that they would never be held accountable for those statements.
And Democrats were nervous about shining too bright a light on the issue because they didn't want to lose more moderate voters. And they assumed again that Roe v. Wade was here to stay. So when Roe was overturned, I think that was an earthquake for both parties. And politically, it has benefited the Democrats. And I hope that continues into the next election. And certainly, Democrats are doing everything they can to highlight all the problems that these really draconian laws about abortion have brought upon women.
And Republicans are trying to squirm their way out of the worst impact of the Roe decision. And politically, it's a problem for Republicans. But beyond the political problems, every day women really have to fight in some of these states to get basic health care because clinics have shut down, not only because they provide abortion care, but because when they're gone, they don't provide any other kind of care either. So it's really created a lot of health problems in certain areas of this country.
MS: I want to come back to what's happening now among Republicans, but I wanted to ask you again, as a journalist covering this and, obviously, as a woman, did you believe that Roe v. Wade would be overturned? Did you think we'd ever meet this moment? And obviously, we saw it coming for some time. I guess my question is, at what point did you start to think, Wow, this could really happen?
EC: I think at the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court and [Maine GOP Senator] Susan Collins’ really over the top half hour speech, insisting that she had gotten private assurances from him that he would not vote to overturn Roe because he was the fifth vote. Right. But that was not enough until Amy Barrett got on the court. And she, being a woman, kind of gave the male five some cover. And Justice Roberts tried strenuously to narrow the decision to keep it at 15 weeks and not completely uproot Roe. But anyway, you could see it coming with Kavanaugh. And I think Senator Collins later said she—used the word lie—that she was lied to. But looking at Kavanaugh's background, his religiosity, even the way he framed some of his responses, you could get a good sense of where he was going. And it seemed only a matter of time. And then getting the woman on the court, rushing her through in the wake of Justice Ginsburg's death, really, really set the stage for this court to take this lurching turn to the right.
And in terms of just doing away with precedents, which they had all said they were committed to, you could say they were all lying or maybe we all should have known better because they were all on the lists provided by the Federalist Society. Right. Which was committed to fulfilling Donald Trump's pledge that anybody he put on the court would vote to overturn Roe. So you're right. It was right there written quite plainly, except it still seemed unbelievable to a lot of people that it could happen.
MS: When I think back to the McLaughlin Group, and you on The McLaughlin Group with Pat Buchanan, if you were to say to me, okay, whose political worldview is going to be the one that dominates and which one's going to shrink, I would have said yours would and Pat Buchanan's would shrink. Of course, yours has [dominated] in the sense that we know where the majority of people are. But Pat Buchanan's agenda has really, much of it, largely come into being a success, being successfully implemented.
EC: Now, as Pat has often said, I didn't make it to the White House, but my issues did. And on trade, on nationalism, on isolationism, and certainly on the issue of abortion. Yes. All of those issues made it to the White House in the body of Donald Trump, who in many ways was the most unlikely carrier of these issues. I mean, he didn't show any signs of being anti-choice when he was, you know, gallivanting around New York. And so there's that. And as an aggressive businessman, he didn't hold the views on international trade that he later exhibited. And who would have thought that he would end up being, you know, pro-Russia and that this would be a significant element of the Republican Party as it's newly constituted by Donald Trump? And I guess I would put Buchanan in that camp.
MS: Absolutely. But of course, as I said, your views are where the majority of Americans and certainly the majority of Democrats are today. And that gets to the problem that the abortion issue is for the GOP.
EC: And the only thing that changes it is if you can get the turnout of voters that is out there and just be mobilized.
MS: And we saw Republicans initially very afraid of this. The extremists now want a full abortion ban in the country, a federal abortion ban.
EC: Right. And the Susan B. Anthony group—you know, liberals feel like they have, you know, stolen her name and that she really wouldn't be where they think she was then and would be today. But they have been considered a kind of moderate, big umbrella group on the right. They are now really forcing the agenda further and further to the right with the apparent goal of virtually eliminating abortions in this country.
Chris Christie, he's an anti-abortion Catholic from a pro-choice state. And he seems to think that a 15 week federal ban would work, but there's no way his party or the Democrats are going to get there anytime soon. Short of that, the safest position for Republicans is one that they have held on a variety of issues until they don't hold it: And that is to leave it up to the states. So I think those are the two positions that the candidates are going to hold, and they're going to be pushed towards the federal abortion ban by the anti-choice groups. They have a bigger problem on their hands.
They're divided, and anytime the opposition is divided, that's a good thing. Democrats are very united on this issue and just about every other issue because they realize that their strength comes from unity.