One of the great coinages in the lexicon of American politics is the Kinsley gaffe, which the political columnist (and old friend of mine) Michael Kinsley described as a moment when a politician accidentally tells the truth. And in last week’s Pennsylvania Senate debate between John Fetterman and Dr. Oz, Oz gave us a truly remarkable Kinsley gaffe about abortion.
The gaffe happened when Oz was asked whether he would support Republican Senator Lindsey Graham’s bill that would ban abortion nationally after fifteen weeks. Oz is anti-abortion (or at least that’s what he said he was in order to win the Republican nomination), but supporting a national abortion ban is an unpopular position in Pennsylvania. So Oz wanted to give an answer that affirmed his opposition to abortion but also made it clear that he thought it was a local issue.
Now, there was a ready-made answer that he could have used: “I think abortion is an issue that should be left to the states.” That’s simple and direct, and it’s a principled — and once common — conservative position.
Oz, though, did not say that. Instead, in his inimitable fashion, he tried to get cute. In an attempt to make pro-choice women feel that he was sympathetic to their position while at the same time assuring conservatives that he was not in favor of abortion, he came up with a now-immortal phrase, saying that he thought abortion should be left to “women, doctors, local political leaders.” It was a pretty remarkable moment: as soon as he said it, everyone watching knew that this was going to be a problem for him.
The question I want to ask, though, is why. Why did that particular way of articulating an anti-abortion position seem so strange and strike people as so wrong? After all, what Oz said was, in one sense, utterly conventional — he was saying that politicians should have a say over when, and if, women can have abortions. If you’re pro-choice, that’s very bad. But it’s what anyone who’s anti-abortion believes — they think politicians should be able to pass laws limiting, or even prohibiting, women from having abortions. So there was nothing new, in a philosophical or political sense, about what Oz said.