WASHINGTON — Washington
IN THE first debate of the 1988 presidential campaign at Winston-Salem, N.C., candidate George Bush committed what looked like a world class political blunder by suggesting that he would favor criminal penalties against not just doctors who performed abortions but the women on whom they were performed.
But early the following morning his campaign chairman, James Baker, held a press briefing to explain that, after thinking it over, Bush really meant to say that the women should be considered "additional victims" of abortion rather than criminals. Although Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis tried to keep the issue alive, he was so ineffectual at controlling the agenda that it died almost instantly.
This episode is worth recalling because it illustrates the complexity of factors involved in the politics of the abortion issue at a time when another Supreme Court decision is thrusting the question back into the arena.
On the face of it, the issue has the potential to force President Bush into an awkward political corner. The early betting is that Congress will pass legislation to overturn the court's decision by specifically authorizing federally aided clinics to discuss abortion with their clients. But it is doubtful that abortion-rights supporters can manage the two-thirds needed to override a Bush veto of such legislation.
Bush seems to have no room to maneuver. Although he ` supported abortion rights before becoming Ronald Reagan's nominee for vice president in 1980, the president has taken a hard line on the issue ever since -- even opposing public financing of abortions in the most extreme circumstances. Given that history, he has little choice except to veto.
It would seem that Bush could not continue to follow that hard line without paying some political price. As analyses of the Virginia gubernatorial election of 1989 demonstrated, a Democratic candidate can attract significant support from suburban Republican women if that candidate makes the abortion issue a defining one and frames it vividly in terms of government interference in citizens' private lives.
But in a presidential election, those are big "ifs." For one thing, even though it may be extremely important to a significant number of voters, the abortion issue is likely to be far down the list of the most pressing national concerns in a presidential campaign. For another, seeking support on the abortion issue involves asking voters to make what is essentially a two-step decision -- that is, that they will vote for a presidential candidate because he will nominate Supreme Court justices who support abortion rights.
Finally, the importance of any issue depends on which presidential candidate is on the offensive and setting the agenda for the campaign. In 1988 Bush escaped unscathed from the blunder at Winston-Salem because he was talking about other questions -- Willie Horton and the pledge of allegiance to the flag -- that allowed him to define the choice in the simplest terms. And Dukakis seemed incapable of projecting the kind of personal force that allowed him to decide which issues should be paramount.
None of this suggests that abortion may not be a significant question in the 1992 election. There is a better-than-even chance the Supreme Court will hand down decisions before the campaign imposing even tighter restrictions on abortion. It is quite possible the court even may overturn the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision that legalized abortion.
Thus, the stage will be set for a whole series of battles over governorships and state legislative seats since it will be state government that will have the direct authority to deal with whatever freedom of action the court allows. The federal funding aspect of the court's decision on clinics, moreover, also makes the issue more pertinent in some Senate and many congressional campaigns.
But whether it becomes a central concern in presidential politics depends on a number of variables. One is the question of which other issues are in the debate; the general problem of the inadequacies of the health care system, for example, would seem to be an issue of far broader reach than abortion. Another unknown now is whether the Democrats are able to nominate a competitive candidate with the force to influence the agenda for the campaign.
George Bush has been able to get away with a 180-degree turnaround on the abortion issue. And, thanks to quick footwork by Jim Baker and the flaws in the Dukakis campaign, he dodged a bullet on the question three years ago. He could do the same next year.