Steele called abortion an “individual choice” and opposed a constitutional ban on abortion in the Feb. 24 interview, which appeared online Wednesday night. He echoed the language of the abortion rights movement and appearing to contradict his own heated assertions during his campaign for chairman that he is a committed soldier in the anti-abortion movement.
While he issued a statement Thursday affirming his opposition to abortion and his support for a constitutional amendment banning it, the damage appeared to be done as leading social conservatives publicly attacked the embattled chairman.
“Comments attributed to Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele are very troubling, and despite his clarification today the party stands to lose many of its members and a great deal of its support in the trenches of grass-roots politics,” former Gov. Mike Huckabee (R-Ark.) said in a posting on his blog. “For Chairman Steele to even infer that taking a life is totally left up to the individual is not only a reversal of Republican policy and principle, but it's a violation of the most basic of human rights — the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, a conservative rival who ultimately backed Steele's bid for chairman, also lambasted him in a written statement.
“Chairman Steele needs to reread the Bible, the U.S. Constitution and the 2008 GOP Platform,” said Blackwell. “He then needs to get to work or get out of the way.”
The revolt from a key segment of the party’s base could not have come at a worse time for Steele, who met with another former rival, Katon Dawson of South Carolina, on Thursday to tamp down rumors of a coup attempt. The flap also added to worries generated by a series of earlier, less policy-oriented statements, ranging from insulting radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh to offering “slum love” to Indian-American Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-La.).
“Are you saying you think women have the right to choose abortion?” GQ’s Lisa DePaulo asked in the interview in his office.
“Yeah. I mean, again, I think that’s an individual choice,” he said, according to GQ’s transcript, which he did not dispute.
“You do?” he was asked.
“Yeah. Absolutely,” he said.
In his statement Thursday, issued through the RNC press office, Steele said, “I am pro-life, always have been, always will be.”
“I tried to present why I am pro-life while recognizing that my mother had a ‘choice’ before deciding to put me up for adoption,” he said, explaining his comments. “But the Republican Party is and will continue to be the party of life. I support our platform and its call for a Human Life Amendment.”
Huckabee said he spoke to Steele Thursday and appreciated the chairman’s “set[ting] the record straight.”
But the explanation was too little, too late, for a series of other anti-abortion leaders.
"I think it is very troubling for a public figure, of either party, particularly one who presents himself as pro-life, to describe the abortion issue as being a matter of 'individual choice.' That is language straight out of Planned Parenthood's messaging playbook," said Charmaine Yoest, president of Americans United for Life, who called the comments “disturbing and demoralizing."
"Michael Steele has just walked away from the Reaganesque position of strong moral clarity on abortion to personify why the Repubican Party continues to be in a 'free fall',” said another activist, Jenn Giroux, the executive director of the conservative group Women Influencing the Nation. “It is amazing that he cannot see and learn from the fact that Sarah Palin's position on abortion and her unapologetic defense of every conceived child drew crowds by the thousands on that issue alone.”
Another anti-abortion activist and Illinois foe of President Barack Obama on the subject, Jill Stanek, was even blunter.
"Michael Steele has just unmistakably proclaimed himself to be pro-choice," she said in an e-mail. "You thought he was 'embattled' last week over his Limbaugh comment? Ha. He has now stepped both feet into it."
The remarks dipped into a deep and barely-concealed well of distrust for Steele among anti-abortion activists — sentiment that prompted him to assure the Washington Times last fall that he opposes abortion rights and favors a constitutional amendment, and left him defending his membership in the liberal Republican Leadership Council, an organization composed largely of Republicans who support abortion rights.
“[Steele] assured me as chairman his views did not matter and that he would be upholding and promoting the party platform, which is very clear on these issues,” said Family Research Council President Tony Perkins. “It is very difficult to reconcile the GQ interview with the chairman's pledge."
The president of the Susan B. Anthony List, Marjorie Dannenfelser, said she expected Steele to win back anti-abortion support by engaging in the public fight on “wedge issues” like Obama’s move to end the Mexico City Policy, which barred the use of federal dollars by foreign nonprofits that offered abortion counseling.
“When you have an issue like that, you ought to be using it,” she said, adding that “that continues not to happen.”
“I read and reread the GQ article trying to figure out what it meant,” she said.
Another group taken by surprise by the GQ piece were gay Republicans. Steele drew fire from that quarter for an interview with a conservative radio host given the same day, Feb. 24, in which he responded to a question about civil unions with, “What are you, crazy? No.”
He told GQ, “I think that there's a whole lot that goes into the makeup of an individual that, uh, you just can't simply say, oh, like, 'Tomorrow morning I'm gonna stop being gay.' It's like saying,'Tomorrow morning I'm gonna stop being black.’”
“Chairman Steele’s comments regarding a federal marriage amendment reflect the traditional conservative belief in federalism,” Christopher Barron, a former political director for the gay GOP group the Log Cabin Republicans said in an e-mailed statement.