Many GOP faithful don't follow line on abortion ON POLITICS



WASHINGTON -- The new Republican concern over the dangers of using the abortion issue as a litmus test has the ring of a deathbed conversion. But it does identify a serious and continuing problem for the party.

Although the outgoing party chairman, Rich Bond, is now presenting himself as an advocate of greater tolerance, it shouldn't be forgotten that he presided over a convention at Houston last August in which his party once again called for a constitutional amendment forbidding abortion -- and specifically rejected making exceptions in cases of pregnancies caused by rape or incest. Even an attempt to leaven the platform with some ameliorating language was squelched.

That position, coupled with the rigidly moralistic rhetoric of such Republicans as Pat Robertson and Pat Buchanan, projected an image of the party that many independents and some mainstream conservative Republicans found difficult to swallow. That much was apparent in the losses President Bush suffered in areas in which he had been strong in the past, most obviously some of the most affluent suburbs where voters were less concerned about the economy and could react to other issues.

Although no one would insist that abortion rights and the perception of the Houston convention cost Bush the election, it is apparent from the attitude of both Bond and his successor, Haley Barbour, that they recognize these were not assets. There had to be some reason other than the economy that the Republicans were deserted by so many of the independents who hold the balance of power in any presidential election.

So now Bond and Barbour have become devotees of what the late Lee Atwater called "the big tent" approach -- that is, welcoming people into their party whether or not they support abortion rights. But Barbour will find this more difficult to accomplish than to prescribe.

The most obvious problem is that the Republican Party has become heavily dependent on religious fundamentalists, such as those represented by the Christian Coalition. And these are people to whom the abortion issue is not political but moral. In their eyes, those who favor abortion are not just mistaken but willing to countenance murder. So the chances of Pat Robertson or Phyllis Schlafly quietly acquiescing to a Republican platform without an anti-abortion plank are slim and none.

This doesn't suggest that all evangelicals consider this issue determinative in their politics, but it does suggest there is at least a significant minority of Republicans who hold that view. With those voters, abortion will be a litmus test, just as support for abortion rights is for most liberal Democrats. And they are just as important to the Republicans as the liberals are to the Democrats.

As a practical matter, the issue is one that cannot be put aside by a Republican Party that has relied so heavily on "family values" questions in putting together its current coalition of conservatives. It is likely that the decisions on what goes into the 1996 Republican platform will be dictated by whoever arrives at the party's national convention as the likely nominee for president.

So the critical question is this one: Can any Republican make it through the primaries to capture the nomination without accepting the hard line against abortion rights? And if someone can manage that, can it be done without causing emotional divisions that tear the party apart?

All of this represents a role reversal for the two major political parties. For years the Democrats have been torn apart by litmus-test questions as fundamental as civil rights, as transitory as aid to the contras in Nicaragua and as irrelevant to the presidency as capital punishment. Only last year, with the economy and George Bush's performance offering such a rich opportunity, were they finally able to put aside everything except abortion rights and civil rights and nominate a candidate who supports the death penalty.

Haley Barbour is a politician with street smarts and great personal force who can be expected to be an effective spokesman for a conservative Republican Party. But whether he can rewrite the definition of conservative to allow for those who support abortion rights is an open question.

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