The GOP's abortion war: So much for Dole's reputation as a skilled conciliator

August 07, 1996|By Jules Witcover and Jules Witcover

SAN DIEGO -- Bob Dole had his head handed to him in his very modest effort to have his party express explicit tolerance of advocates of abortion rights. For months he insisted that the Republican Party face the reality that millions of its members don't want a constitutional amendment banning abortion, and make a gesture toward them. The platform writers simply rolled over him.

Retention of basically the same abortion language from the 1992 platform washes away not only the words ''tolerance is a virtue'' in the abortion plank but much of the luster on Mr. Dole's reputation as an engineer of compromise.

What he wanted, after all, was not some earth-shaking reversal of the long-held position of his party. He made it clear that he would continue his personal support of a constitutional amendment against abortion and wanted only to give those who disagreed some sense that their view not only would be recognized but tolerated.

Instead, the abortion language says only that ''we also recognize members of our party have deeply held and sometimes different views'' -- deleting specific reference to abortion. If the platform cannot say the party tolerates these views, does that mean it will be intolerant of them? The distinction is ridiculous on its face, yet the leaders of the anti-abortion forces would not yield on it to enable their prospective nominee to save face.

Once Senator Dole decided so conspicuously to take on these forces, he raised the stakes for himself and his image as a leader. In doing so, he indicated that he intended to take a firm hold on the party that was about to nominate him, and he wasn't going to be jerked around by special-interest representatives.

Specifically, he singled out Gary Bauer, head of the Family Research Council, one of the nation's major anti-abortion organizations. But when Mr. Bauer and his chief allies on the issue, Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition, Phyllis Schlafly of the Eagle Forum and Bay Buchanan, campaign manager for brother Pat Buchanan, got their heads together and dug in their heels, Senator Dole meekly caved.

Paul Manafort, the candidate's convention manager, dismissively said that what counted was that the abortion issue was now behind Mr. Dole. That may be so for the short term in the convention, although Govs. Bill Weld and Pete Wilson have indicated that they will still make a stab at softening the party's stand.

The gender gap

The long term, however, is another matter. All the polls indicate that Mr. Dole continues to trail President Clinton by 15 to 20 percent among younger and middle-aged women and by as much as 30 percent among older women. This gender gap results not only from the GOP's anti-abortion position but also from fears of Republican cuts in child welfare, Medicare and other aspects of the social safety net.

The polls show a clear majority for abortion rights, albeit with such restrictions as prior parental notification and a bar to federal funds for abortion. Abortion-rights groups that wanted the 1992 plank thrown out altogether warned of serious defections from Republican ranks by their members if this was not done. Ann Stone, head of the Republicans for Choice, cited a survey of her membership that she said showed 45 percent would not vote for Senator Dole if that language was retained.

But other polls of the general public have found that relatively few voters rely on only a single issue in deciding how they vote.

More notable may be what the debate says about the feelings of the anti-abortion leaders toward Senator Dole and his chances of election. In their unwillingness to bend even a little, they showed no sympathy for his desire to demonstrate his capacity for leadership and peacekeeping in his own party.

While the Republican platform writers were riding roughshod over their abortion-rights brethren, the Democrats in Pittsburgh were saying in their platform that ''We respect the individual conscience of each American on this difficult issue.'' That language showed the kind of ''tolerance'' the Republicans were not ready to embrace.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 8/07/96

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