GOP candidates dance around abortion debate

June 13, 1999|By Michael Kinsley

PATRICK Buchanan and Gary Bauer aren't worried. Rather, it's such folks as Elizabeth Dole and George W. Bush who are agonizing. And their agony isn't moral, goodness knows. It's political: How to prevent the party's hard-line, anti-abortion stance from driving millions of voters away.

Mr. Dole, Mr. Bush, Dan Quayle, John McCain and Steve Forbes -- and the rest -- all claim to share the anti-abortion view, as they must to be leading Republican lights in the first place.

But who believes them? Does Ms. Dole really think abortion is equivalent to infanticide? Is Mr. Bush mourning over millions of murdered babies every year? Not likely.

So they must pretend to a deep moral belief they probably don't have, then pretend to have come up with a reason this deep moral belief shouldn't really matter.

The official Republican position on abortion, as expressed in the past three GOP platforms, is so extreme that if it were taken seriously, no Republican could be elected to any office except, perhaps, pope.

Fortunately for the GOP, few voters are aware of it, fewer still understand it, and those who do understand it assume correctly that the party doesn't really mean it.

Platform statement

The platform reads: "The unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed. We support a human life amendment to the Constitution and we endorse legislation to make clear that the Fourteenth Amendment's protections apply to unborn children."

The 14th Amendment guarantees all citizens "the equal protection of the laws." If the fetus is a person under the 14th Amendment, an abortion must be treated exactly like the premeditated killing of an adult -- that is, like first-degree murder. There can be no exceptions for rape or incest.

And the woman who procures an abortion is guilty of murder just as if she had hired a gunman to kill her born offspring. In a death penalty state -- and the Republican platform favors the death penalty, naturally -- she must pay with her life.

The 1996 platform goes on to say, "we have only compassion" for women who procure abortions and "our pro-life agenda does not include punitive action" against them. Which only shows that the platform does not even believe itself because that stuff about the 14th Amendment can have no other meaning. But the current Republican position is logically consistent. If full human life begins at conception, then full human rights do, too, including the right to equal protection of the laws.

No compromising position

It is a concept that does not easily lend itself to compromise, as the Republican presidential contenders are demonstrating. Their search for a way out has led most of them to two rhetorical strategies.

One is the notion the late GOP strategist Lee Atwater called "the big tent." There's room for everybody.

Asked about abortion recently on CNN, Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson also invoked what is apparently the party-line phrase: "inclusive party." He elaborated, "We want to reach out and grow this party. . . . We're recognizing that there are differences."

It's surely true that it would be suicidal for a party to demand agreement on all issues from either its candidates or its voters. The tricky question is what are the core values that really define you and what are the fringe issues on which differences are not crucial.

Republicans would prefer not to be defined by their position on abortion. But if you take it seriously, the anti-abortion position is definitive by definition. How can you make the capital gains tax a litmus test issue but say that the slaughter of millions of innocent children is something about which you have only a mild preference and don't care much if people disagree? The truth is that most Republican leaders don't actually take their alleged position on abortion seriously. But they can't admit this.

The other rhetorical way out for Republican politicians is to say that you yourself are as hard-core as ever, but since a majority of Americans apparently disagrees, there's no point in trying to do anything about it.

Ms. Dole goes further: There's no point in even discussing it. She has called on Republican women to "set an example" and "refuse to be drawn into dead-end debates" about something that is "not going to happen."

Mr. Bush, sounding like a very promising cross between his father and Mr. Quayle, explained in March why he opposes pushing for a constitutional amendment, although he favors one himself: "There are a lot of Americans who don't view the abortion issue as a matter of life. I do. That's one reason why I'm a pro-life person."

This is an imaginative attempt to dress craven pragmatism as high principle, but it makes no sense. The platforms of both parties are littered with proposals that are "not going to happen." Almost nothing is going to happen if a majority must already favor it before any political leader will speak out in its favor.

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