Look quickly, political junkies, because Chris Christie did something on Morning Joe today that is as rare as the sighting of the most endangered of species: one Republican politician attacking another for being too conservative. He went after Marco Rubio for opposing exceptions to a hypothetical abortion ban for pregnancies caused by rape or incest.
“I will tell you one thing Marco Rubio has done: He has made it very clear that on the issue of pro-life, Marco Rubio is not for an exception for … rape, incest, or life of the mother,” Christie said.
“Now, you know, I think that’s the kind of position New Hampshire voters would be concerned about,” he added.
“I’m pro-life, but I believe that rape, incest, and the life of the mother — as Ronald Reagan did — should be exceptions to that rule.”
Christie is attacking Rubio for taking the standard position of the anti-choice movement — a key GOP constituency group — which happens to conflict with public opinion, even among Republicans, and especially in socially tolerant New England.
The whole rape-incest exception became part of the political status quo through a compromise reached in Congress in 1993 that gave Henry Hyde enough Democratic votes to maintain his famous amendment banning use of federal funds (especially through Medicaid) to pay for abortions. Anti-choice advocates have tolerated it and politicians who supported it as a sop to public opinion, but in their perfect world it would be abandoned along with all other concessions to the idea that a woman doesn’t have rights superior to that of the zygote or fetus for which she is serving as a biologically (and perhaps divinely) ordained incubator.
Like the whole "partial-birth abortion" shuck, rape-incest exceptions have become a fine way for conservatives to draw attention away from their fundamental position of criminalizing nearly all abortions. But it’s understood by all involved that these relatively marginal issues are tactical, not fundamental; that’s why every Republican National Convention platform since 1980 has endorsed an abortion ban without mentioning exceptions, even though particular presidential nominees (most recently Mitt Romney) were for rape, incest, or life-of-the-mother exceptions. That makes sense when you think about it: Once you accept the premise that, from the moment of conception, pregnancy involves a human being who needs to be protected from the potential murderer carrying it, rape or incest exceptions make no sense; they enable, as anti-choicers often say, a "second act of violence" that merely compounds the crime that generated the pregnancy. The woman who is the object rather than the subject of such laws is irrelevant to their twisted logic.
And so in Republican presidential nomination contests, candidates who want the special friendship of the anti-choice lobby take exactly the same position as Marco Rubio (and Ted Cruz, and Ben Carson, and former candidates Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, and Bobby Jindal), and then try to avoid talking about it and especially stumbling into the kind of stupid and embarrassing defenses of it that brought down Senate candidate Todd Akin in 2012.
What’s unusual in this case is that it’s a Republican that’s holding Rubio accountable for his position. And while the anti-choice lobby is fine with Christie’s own position on the subject — for the time being, anyway — it will be a long time, if ever, before he’s forgiven for calling out Rubio for holding the “correct” position.
But you have to appreciate that Chris Christie’s presidential candidacy is hanging by a thread. After months and months of feverish campaigning and dragging himself out of the negative favorability territory he inhabited after Bridgegate, Christie has seen in New Hampshire the faint glimmer of survival, triumph, and revenge. He’s been endorsed by the Granite State’s major newspaper, the Union Leader. He’s part of a tightly competitive pack of “Establishment” candidates struggling to survive in the state and then move on to confront Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. And now all that could be going down the drain thanks to the hype Rubio earned from doing much better than expected in Iowa.
All the things Rubio and his backers have done to project an image of a candidate acceptable to all wings of the party make him vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy, flip-flopping, and, alternatively, RINOism (which is and will be Cruz’s critique) or extremism. This last road, so rarely taken by Republican primary candidates, is where Christie’s gone in his hour of need. It may or may not work in the New Hampshire primary. But the one clear beneficiary is the Democratic presidential nominee, who will inevitably record and repeat every word Christie says about Rubio’s extremist position.