WASHINGTON -- This may finally be the year when the abortion issue comes front and center in presidential politics. If it happens, it could represent a significant threat to President Bush's re-election.
The abortion question already has shown itself to be a volatile one in some legislative and gubernatoral campaigns, most notable in the 1989 elections of Govs. L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia and James Florio of New Jersey. But it has never been a prime factor in a presidential campaign because there always have been other issues that were either more immediate or more pertinent.
In the 1988 campaign the issue arose most prominently in the first debate between Bush and Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis when Bush suggested he might favor imposing criminal penalties on women who had abortions as well as on physicians who performed them. Dukakis failed to capitalize on the blunder, however, and the following morning Bush's campaign manager, James Baker, held a press briefing to contend that Bush essentially had misspoken himself and, on second thought, favored no such penalties. Dukakis was so much on the defensive through the rest of the campaign he never forced the issue.
This year, however, that pattern could be broken by a combination of circumstances. The most important obviously is the possibility that the Supreme Court will use a Pennsylvania case either to overturn Roe vs. Wade or to permit tough restrictions on abortion that would have almost the same effect. A second factor is the possibility that an end to the recession later this year will allow voters to turn their attention to social issues largely ignored when they are preoccupied with the economy.
The threat to President Bush grows out of the possibility that Republican moderates, and women from the suburbs in particular, may desert him because of his extreme position against abortion. Such a movement was traced by polling in the Virginia gubernatorial campaign in which Wilder took an early and forceful position against any government role in the decision women make on abortion. The same pattern was visible in New Jersey.
Polling information generally shows that voters personally oppose abortion but also oppose government interference in the decision by a substantial margin.
In Bush's case any room for maneuvering was lost long ago. Before the 1980 campaign, in which he ended up running for vice president, Bush had been considered a supporter of abortion rights. But he reversed himself and now favors a constitutional amendment that would overturn Roe vs. Wade and opposes virtually any public funding of abortions.
The Democratic nominee-presumptive Bill Clinton is not the ideal candidate in the eyes of abortion rights activists. As governor of Arkansas he has favored parental notification and limits on public funding, and he has given the issue little prominence in his campaign. But he is generally pro-choice and still much the preferred candidate when compared with Bush.
Bush is likely to be faced with the issue well before the general election campaign and any decision by the court on the Pennsylvania law. A group known as "Republicans for Choice" has been raising money to run a campaign to strike the long-standing anti-abortion plank from the Republican Party platform to be adopted at Houston in August. Whether they will gain enough support among delegates to bring the issue to the convention floor is in doubt. But as the only likely source of controversy at the convention, the abortion rights activists can be assured of prominence in the television and press coverage.
The Webster decision of 1989, the appointment of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court and the enactment of several state laws limiting women's choices -- all have served to both mobilize the abortion rights groups and encourage abortion opponents, visible in Buffalo this week.
The role of any president in the abortion issue is somewhat limited. But he can veto appropriations for public funding, as Bush has done, and provide leadership on one side or the other, as Bush has done up to a point. And this year no candidate is likely to be able to duck the question.