Reporting from Washington and Little Rock, Ark. — In college Elena Kagan wrote an essay lamenting Republican gains in the 1980 election and referring to candidates backed by the Moral Majority as "avengers of 'innocent life' and the B-1 bomber."
Now that Kagan stands as a nominee to join the Supreme Court, some conservatives believe the 30-year-old remark may reveal a personal animosity toward their side of the abortion rights cause.
But liberal activists also wonder about Kagan's position. They point to memos she wrote as a policy staffer in the Clinton White House urging President Clinton to take a compromise position on some late-term abortions.
President Obama's advisors say he has no doubt that Kagan is a legal progressive who will maintain the current balance of the court if confirmed to replace the retiring liberal John Paul Stevens. But with the constitutional right to an abortion apparently hanging by just one vote on the court, Kagan's record is giving pause to both sides.
The essay Kagan wrote after the 1980 election for the Daily Princetonian, her college newspaper, indicates that on the brink of her career she was a committed liberal.
She wrote of her immediate reaction to Ronald Reagan's election that "the world had gone mad, that liberalism was dead and that there was no longer any place for the ideals we held or the beliefs we espoused," according to a copy of the essay republished this week by the Princeton newspaper.
"Even after the returns came in, I found it hard to conceive of the victories of these anonymous but Moral Majority-backed opponents," she wrote, "these avengers of 'innocent life' and the B-1 bomber, these beneficiaries of a general turn to the right and a profound disorganization on the left."
In those words, and in their punctuation, conservatives detect a personal dislike.
"Did she mean to express such contempt, or did she have something else in mind?" asked Douglas Johnson, the longtime legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee. "Does she still hold the same attitude? And can she set it aside when viewing legislative enactments, not only in the area of abortion, but others as well?"
Liberal activists wonder whether Kagan may in fact be too good at setting aside the personal conviction she held as a 20-year-old student. Their questions arise from advice she gave as a domestic policy advisor to Clinton in 1997, when he was considering a Democratic version of a ban on some late-term abortions as a way to kill a stronger measure that was picking up steam in the Senate at the time.
According to files at the William J. Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Ark., Kagan and her supervisor sent Clinton a memo urging him to get behind the ban sponsored by Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota. They suggested the move would give Democratic senators something to vote for and thus provide them with political cover to stand with the president when he vetoed the stricter Republican measure.
Clinton followed the advice, the strategy worked and his veto survived.
Today, liberal activists hope senators push Kagan on the topic during her confirmation hearings. NARAL Pro-Choice America, for example, has reserved its endorsement until its leaders learn more.
Kagan has a lifelong record of looking for common ground among opponents, such as the compromise she suggested to Clinton. The 30-year-old Princetonian essay offers a hint that she already harbored a pragmatic streak.
Though her column ultimately predicts the next few years would be "marked by American disillusionment with conservative programs and solutions," the ambitious young liberal still had cause for sadness.
"Self-pity still sneaks up," she wrote, "and I wonder how all this could possibly have happened and where on earth I'll be able to get a job next year."