There is no reason to question whether Dr. Henry Foster deserves the high esteem in which he is held or that he could ably serve as surgeon general of the United States. The real problem with this nomination is political: The last thing the Clinton administration needs as it tries to deal with a hostile Congress is the prospect of mounting a nomination fight keyed to an issue as volatile as abortion.
If President Clinton lacked a clue as to how difficult that fight would be, he got it Friday in the announcement from Democratic Sen. Joseph Biden, former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, that he would vote against Dr. Foster.
This muddle is not Dr. Foster's fault, and it is regrettable that a dedicated, distinguished gynecologist should be caught in this political cross-fire. The number of abortions he performed -- whatever it turns out to be -- is not the real issue either. Any obstetrician-gynecologist should be trained in a procedure that is legal and that, sadly enough, is sometimes necessary.
But on this point the White House has demonstrated political myopia. In the current climate, almost any gynecologist nominated for the bully pulpit role of surgeon general would set off an abortion fight. Why not a family practitioner, a cardiologist or another pediatrician (preferably one less prone to controversy than Dr. Joycelyn Elders)?
The president was right to say the abortions Dr. Foster performed were perfectly legal. That principle must be upheld. But at this point a bruising fight in Congress, with slim chances for victory, won't do much for abortion rights.
What is truly disturbing is that, once again, nomination blunders have made the White House staff look incompetent.