Abortion issue threatens Republican unity in 1992 On Politics Today

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

July 24, 1991|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

Washington -- IN ANALYZING the prospects for the Republican Party in 1992 the other day, a leading GOP pollster argued that young voters offer his party a great opportunity to achieve its long-sought goal of becoming the majority in the country.

Ed Goeas, presilican voting pattern." If these young voters go Republican for George Bush again next year and continue to vote Republican, he suggested, and as older Roosevelt Democrats diminish in numbers, "it will only be a matter of time before the Republican Party grows into the majority." Young Hispanic-American voters, as well as young Catholics and Southerners, are voting increasingly Republican.

Menacing that rosy outlook, however, is the attitude of young voters toward abortion. Many polls indicate that while they don't like it they support the right of the woman to make her own choice. If the Supreme Court, its conservative composition bolstered, throws out the Roe vs. Wade decision permitting abortion, the issue could become a strong voting motivation in 1992.

That's why plans of pro-choice Republican women to make a convention fight against the anti-abortion plank put in the GOP platform in 1980 are viewed as a potential monkey wrench to party harmony.

The abortion issue stirred considerable division 11 years ago at the Republican National Convention in Detroit. Retiring national party vice chair Mary Dent Crisp, opposing the insertion of the anti-abortion plank, warned her colleagues that "we are about to bury the rights of over 100 million American women under a heap of platitudes." The action, she cautioned, "could prevent our party from electing the next president of the United States."

The GOP ignored her, discarded its platform plank supporting the Equal Rights Amendment for women, wrote in a call for a constitutional ban on abortion -- and resoundingly elected Ronald Reagan.

Next summer in Houston, Crisp and other Republican women against that same anti-abortion plank will be airing their complaint again, although probably without the dire prediction as it relates to the re-election of today's GOP incumbent.

They affirm, in fact, their solid support for President Bush, now resolutely in the anti-abortion ranks. The leader of the current pro-choice drive within the GOP, longtime conservative activist Ann Stone, says: "We're not asking the president to change his position. We believe that would hurt him," casting him as a flip-flopper.

But their support for Bush, Stone says, isn't going to stop them from making what they say will be a much more organized effort than in 1980 to put the party on record for a woman's free choice. It could even help Bush, she contends, if he is "seen as somebody who lets the party make up its own mind" on the controversial issue.

Mary Matalin, Republican National Committee chief of staff, contends that while it will be in the party's interest to soft-pedal the differences, voters will be tolerant. "If we're talking big tent," she says, referring to the late Lee Atwater's description of the GOP as a party big enough to shelter many views, "it won't hurt for the Republican Party to be seen really struggling with this thing."

Such a contest, however, will guarantee that the abortion issue will be thrust into the national spotlight, to the political discomfort of Bush, a one-time supporter of abortion rights who switched as part of his rush to conform with the positions of the man who had selected him as his running mate.

Much depends, Matalin says, on how the debate is crafted. If it is not seen as a battle between two extremist positions but rather as a quest for a reasonable solution to a difficult dilemma, she says, the political damage can be minimized. Already, she says, "you don't see fetuses, you don't see hangers" dominating the debate, an indication of the shelving of these scare symbols for a more temperate discussion of this highly emotional issue.

Republican pro-choice women who support Bush may want to have just such a low-octane exchange. But Democrats who see abortion as a means of prying young voters from their new Republican voting habit are not likely to use the issue gently, especially if the Court has made Roe v. Wade history by then.

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