WASHINGTON — Washington. - For a decade, Republican presidents have packed the Supreme Court with justices carefully screened for their likely stand on the most emotional issue in American politics. Now that that system is paying off, George Bush may wish he and Ronald Reagan had never played abortion politics.
Last week's high-court decision upholding the administration's ban on abortion advice in federally financed clinics makes the subject an inevitable issue in next year's presidential election. The only way the court's ruling can be voided is by Congress, and the only way a congressional vote can be voided is a presidential veto. Unless Mr. Bush has been lying to us, he will use that veto.
The 1972 Roe v. Wade decision to legalize abortion boosted the New Right in national politics. Anti-abortion forces teamed with TV preachers to promote the likes of Jesse Helms to the Senate, and Mr. Reagan to the White House.
Because ''right-to-life'' crusaders were the losers in Roe v. Wade, their campaign was driven by anger, and it scared a lot of politicians into taking the anti-abortion pledge, whether they felt deeply about it or not.
Mr. Bush himself, while running for the GOP presidential nomination in 1980, opposed a constitutional amendment to outlaw abortion. But the moment he was picked as Mr. Reagan's running mate, he adopted the New Right agenda and started saying he favored an amendment. In state after state, election after election, highly motivated anti-abortion forces either defeated pro-choice candidates or gave them a fright they would remember next time around.
Then, in 1989, the issue turned around. This time, the high court's decision upholding Missouri restrictions on abortion galvanized the other side. Pro-choice organizations rose up against politicians who wanted to tighten regulations in other states. For the first time in two decades, anti-abortion politicians were on the defensive.
Before and after the Missouri decision, national polls showed that while the public takes abortion seriously, a consistent majority supports women's right to decide. What that case changed was the political dynamic, the pattern in which the interest group offended most recently campaigns with most fervor.
In recent months, the backlash against the Missouri ruling has faded. Abortion opponents have succeeded in passing restrictions in more than half a dozen states, and action is pending in others. But in national surveys and in Congress, there is still majority backing for women's choice.
Last fall, the Senate passed Republican Sen. John Chafee's amendment that would have pre- empted last week's court decision against abortion advice in U.S.-supported clinics. The measure died when the Senate failed to act on the broader bill to which it was attached. But it was approved by 62 to 36 -- just short of a veto-proof two-thirds margin.
Last week's ruling is re-energizing the pro-choice movement because it was the first abortion-related case involving Mr. Bush's only Supreme Court court appointee, David Souter. Justice Souter tipped the 5-4 decision, and many on both sides immediately predicted he would vote the same way when a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade itself reaches the court.
That is far from certain. But renewed efforts to enact the Chafee amendment are already under way, and the margin in favor may grow.
Seeing the pro-choice reaction to the Missouri decision, Mr. Bush already has softened his call for a constitutional amendment, more often merely saying he favors adoption over abortion. And aside from the intrinsic merits of the case, political logic says he could help himself politically by signing rather than vetoing the Chafee measure.
By signing it, he would infuriate Republican right wingers, but they cannot deny him renomination. His concern has to be the general election, where he particularly needs to strengthen his appeal to women voters, who are overwhelmingly pro-choice.
However, some on the GOP right already are making noises about a third-party protest ticket if the president should weaken on abortion. Up to now, he has never defied the right, and even if this threat is just a bluff, there is no sign that he will call it.
On this issue if no other, the Democrats are in a win-win situation: if Mr. Bush casts a veto, they have an issue. If he does not, they can watch the resulting fight within the GOP.
Either way, it gives a shot of life to the 1992 campaign.