Battle for the GOP

February 02, 1993

It's a pity that Rich Bond did not tell the Republican National Convention last August what he told the Republican National Committee last week.

In his valedictory as GOP chairman, he declared: "Our job is to win elections and not cling to intolerances that zealots call principles." Then, to drive home the specific, he warned the GOP "to abandon abortion as a litmus test for Republicanism or continue to face the consequences at the polls."

Mr. Bond's successor, Haley Barbour, quickly took up a similar theme. His formula for handling the abortion issue: "That it not be a litmus test. That we not have people believe that if they disagree with the Republican platform on abortion that they're somehow second-class Republicans."

In the lexicon of the Religious Right, which detests Mr. Bond's new-found wisdom and Mr. Barbour's message, we say, "Amen." Just why the GOP dug itself into the hole of antagonizing the American majority that favors abortion rights is one of the bizarre happenings of recent politics.

Barry Goldwater, "Mr. Conservative" himself, is a secularist and a libertarian who doesn't want government getting into his wallet -- or his bedroom. Ronald Reagan is more or less of the same school but for political purposes welcomed the Religious Right into his Big Tent coalition where it still sits -- an insurgent force with huge financial backing and technological mastery of mass-appeal televangelism. As for George Bush, his conversion to the anti-abortion cause was always suspect to both sides on the issue.

Mr. Barbour, a lawyer-lobbyist in the tradition of former Democratic chairman (now Commerce secretary Ron Brown), wishes the abortion question would go away. He wants to concentrate on 1993-94 elections. But it won't go away. The "Christian Coalition" organized by Pat Robertson is fighting precinct-by-precinct, often with stealth candidates, to fasten the hand of zealotry and intolerance on the party of Lincoln. The battle will reach a climax in 1996 when the GOP National Convention will have to vote up or down on the anti-abortion plank now in its platform. There will be no place to hide, nor should there be.

Democrats had to lose election after election before Bill Clinton stood down the special-interest, left-liberal constituencies that were leading his party to defeat after defeat. Now we will see if one loss has taught the GOP a lesson about the far right. Otherwise, it too will have to learn the hard way, again and again, that American voters instinctively seek the broad, good-sense highway of inclusion rather than the narrow path of exclusion.

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