Let me state up-front that I'm pro-choice. What that means to me is this: I think it's totally, completely, 100 percent between the woman, her doctor and her God whether to have an abortion. Having stated my position, let me say I have absolutely no desire to discuss or debate the merits of abortion. Period. End of discussion. And while this piece touches on abortion, that's not at all what it's about, as you'll see if you keep reading.
Another Clinton appointee is about to bite the dust. I'm speaking of Dr. Henry Foster Jr., the obstetrician-gynecologist who was nominated by President Clinton to replace Dr. Joycelyn Elders as Surgeon General. It turns out Dr. Foster has performed thirty-nine abortions (and supervised a drug test which may have resulted in an additional 55 terminated pregnancies, raising the ire of the anti-abortion, pro-life set, more than a few of whom are conservative Republicans. The White House staff should have known about the abortions . They had to know that. The fact they didn't proves they are incompetent. And that Clinton is incompetent as well.
In response to a question posed by pro-choice Senator Nancy Kassebaum, the chair of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, the Clinton Administration checked with Dr. Foster and responded that he had performed one abortion. The number was subsequently raised to a dozen. Then thirty-nine. How come he didn't know before what the number was? Why wasn't he asked? Why didn't the FBI or whoever does the vetting process find out?
The dissembling creates distrust and makes it so that pro-choice liberal Senators like Joseph Biden (alas, remember his role in the Thomas hearings!) are willing to walk away from the nominee simply because of White House stupidity.
As I've said, I'm pro-choice. But... There's no way Clinton gets a doctor of any race or sex who has performed more than one or two abortions confirmed by the Republican Senate as Surgeon General a year before Presidential elections. Especially with Senators Dole and Gramm positioning themselves for the Republican nomination battle. Anybody who thinks otherwise, regardless of their personal opinion of Dr. Foster or their stand on abortion, is seriously tripping!
The outrage should be reserved not for Senate Republicans. We know exactly who and what they are! No, the outrage should be reserved for the President and his incompetent staff! They seem to belong to the wishing will make it so school of political practice. And that don't cut it any more. Probably never did.
The only mistake Dr. Foster made -- besides not knowing the number -- was in trusting the Clinton administration enough to be nominated by them. Would you accept an appointment by Clinton requiring Senate confirmation after this? After Joycelyn Elders? After Zoe Baird? After Lani Guinier? C'mon, they've been in office over two years and they're still making the same stupid mistakes!!
Clinton is going down in '96! It's virtually a certainty, unless the Republicans do something absurdly stupid between now and then counting on that doesn't represent a viable political strategy. So if you don't like Republican congressional policies now, what are you going to do when they control the whole federal apparatus?
And since black votes will largely be irrelevant next year, maybe it's time to draft Jesse Jackson or someone just to make it crystal clear that the Democratic Party had better shape up or its dead. Better yet, why not get out and support the most progressive politician currently on the national scene: Newt Gingrich? Alas, he's not running!
It has been argued that there is some grand design at work in Clinton's dismal record with respect to standing up on behalf of his nominees, particularly his black ones. I see two choices in this regard. The first is that Clinton is really a Republican Trojan horse, masquerading as an incompetent Democrat to drive voters, in droves, to the Republican Party. And, in particular, sending up politically damaged African-Americans to twist in the wind to prove to white folks that affirmative action has run amuck and their only salvation is the Republican Party. (See "The Death of Affirmative Action" in this issue of Meanderings.)
This choice requires a true Machiavellian mind, a strong ability to chart out the future and develop a strategy, and a disciplined approach to carrying out that strategy. Other than California Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, the only person in American politics who possesses such a mind is Newt Gingrich. And even then, I find it absurd to think that anyone is smart enough and has enough power to be masterminding all of this. Besides, what's the payoff for Clinton? Will he be given the Republican Presidential nomination? I don't think so!
So I'm left with choice number two: Clintonian and Democratic incompetence. It seems like Clinton is presiding over amateur hour at the White House. In this regard Clinton is the new Ted Mack, except he will only have a four year run (two down, two to go)! I can understand getting burned on the gays in the military flap at the beginning of the administration. I can even understand getting blind-sided by Zoe Baird. But I can't begin to forgive him for or trust him after Lani Guinier. And these many other debacles just scream ineptitude and incompetence to me. Oh, and not standing up for any principles other than the hope of re-election.
Is Dr. Foster culpable in this latest debacle? Was he, a political newcomer, responsible for knowing exactly how many abortions he had performed? Should he have taken himself out of contention by deciding that the abortion issue, combined with his experience, would prove a political liability? No. That's why the President has a staff. That's why they review all the details of each appointee's life, career and even herbal-inhalation practices, precisely because they don't want to get into fights unnecessarily. Especially fights they can't win.
Maybe when Dr. Foster was asked about the abortions he simply should not have answered the question. That might have been preferable to the number of procedures performed growing from one to a dozen to 39 and maybe more, right? No, he shouldn't have refused to answer the question. What he should have done was give the correct answer. Which means he should have known the correct answer! Which means the White House should have asked and found out the answer to that question well before they nominated him. It was certainly going to be an issue. The question was always going to be asked.
When you're up for a Presidential appointment, especially one which must clear Senate approval, you have to be prepared! In politics, there is no such thing as off-the-cuff questioning. Every question is an attempt to trick you and every answer is, or should be, an attempt to tell your story!
Now, just suppose Dr. Foster had responded by saying something like this:
"Over the course of my 38 years as an obstetrician, I have performed 39 abortions. That's an average of one per year. Most of those abortions were therapeutic ones to save the life of the mother, or where the mother had been a victim of rape or incest. In all cases I made sure that I and my patient explored all the other alternatives before choosing this radical course of action. And the fact that I've had literally thousands of patients, with thousands of opportunities to perform abortions if I so desired, I think the fact there were only 39 performed over 38 years demonstrates my feelings about such procedures.
"I am pro-choice. You should know that. My opinion on the matter of female reproductive choice is unshakable. It will not change. If that is a reason for the Republican Senate to reject me, then so be it. However, my record is proof that I stand with the President in saying that abortion should be legal, it should be safe, and it should be rare. It has been rare in my own case, performed when absolutely necessary. Not performed merely as a means of birth control or whatever.
"The Supreme Court has legalized abortion. So long as it is legal, then I as a doctor will continue to follow my conscience and the dictates of my profession in using this procedure when necessary.
Now, the fact that he could not deliver a well-honed sound bite response like that is not his fault although he certainly suffers as a result. No, it is simply indicative of the fact the White House staff didn't do its job by asking the right questions, getting the right answers, and either nominating someone else or developing an approach to selling his candidacy that involved directness, candor and the truth. They didn't prepare themselves with the information they needed, the information they had to have. And they didn't prepare Dr. Foster by developing a plausible strategy for dealing with the issue. They certainly didn't prepare Dr. Foster.
The political calculus is really not that complicated. The nomination has to be approved by the Senate, now controlled by Republicans. The last holder of the office ran into a political firestorm, so this nomination would clearly be under extreme scrutiny. You have two leaders of the Senate, Dole and Gramm actively posturing for the Republican presidential nomination, needing the support of the right wing of that party, and therefore trying to out-do each other on conservative litmus tests. That is the political reality, not the medical one. Under those circumstances, Dr. Foster shouldn't have been nominated or should have been prepared.
Instead, we have a difficult political fight. Meanwhile, the White House, covering it's tail, is left to try and turn the question of competency into a battle over abortion. Since two-thirds of Americans support female reproductive choice, the White House hopes to win the battle on those grounds, or to lose but at the same time score political points, painting Republicans as captives of their far-right fringe. Consider the following quotation from Time's article on the Foster Nomination:
Too late perhaps, White House advisers decided to try to make the charged politics of abortion work for them. Though some concede they would have preferred to save a defining battle over abortion for the 1996 presidential campaign, the President's inner circle hopes at least to inflict pain on the Republicans by forcing the debate now. "We stumbled into the fight, but now that we're in it, we see that it's a fight we want to have," says an aide. "((It)) will speak volumes about who controls the Republican Party." He adds, "We may not win it, but it's worth pointing out that one side of the party -- the right-to-lifers -- are leading the Republicans by the nose." Christian Coalition leader Reed plunged into this strategy by declaring last Friday that -- for his 1.5 million members -- abortion would be a litmus-test issue in 1996.
Whether the strategy works or not is an open question, but it is clearly a strategy born of bungling and stumbling.
The truth is Dr. Foster doesn't have to be Surgeon General. There are hundreds of thousands of doctors in the country, many of whom would be qualified for the post. For example, maybe it was foolish to nominate any obstetrician/gynecologist for the post at this time. So, much as I like and admire Dr. Foster, why nominate him if everything in his background couldn't stand up to the test, the political test? Should Clinton nominate and stand behind such people, repeatedly, just to prove to us that he's on our side? And should he allow such things to become major political issues, distracting him and his administration from what it must do if it is to survive? In other words, is Dr. Foster the most important thing Clinton must face right now?
If Ted Mack were still running his show, these guys wouldn't do very well. And if they were trying to win Amateur Night at the Apollo, the crowd would boo, the fire alarm would ring, the hook would come out and they'd be dragged off the stage. Which is precisely what is likely to happen in November 1996!