If high court overturns Roe v. Wade, decision would undermine the GOP

July 24, 2005|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

AS THE confirmation process for Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts Jr. moves forward, many Democrats express concern his could be the vote that will overturn the Roe v. Wade decision.

But if Roe were overturned, who would stand to gain the most politically? Most agree that it would be Democrats.

"I would think that Republican strategists would not be pleased at all to see Roe v. Wade overturned," says Alan I. Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University.

Thomas F. Schaller, associate professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, agrees.

"The last thing the Republicans want nationally is for Roe v. Wade to be overturned," he says.

That seems counter-intuitive. Overturning the decision that gave constitutional protection to a woman's right to an abortion has been a cornerstone of the Republican platform for years. Getting such a ruling from a reconstituted Supreme Court would seem to be a big victory for the GOP.

The problem for Republicans is that it would throw the issue back into the arena of legislators who have to face the voters.

Since the Roe v. Wade ruling in 1973, anti-abortion politicians have been able to castigate the Supreme Court for allowing the procedure. But they have never had to actually cast a vote outlawing it. And most polls show that in most states, that would be an unpopular vote.

"It would become a wedge issue for Democrats," says Johns Hopkins University political scientist Matthew Crenson.

With Roe as the law of the land, Republican opposition to the decision has been mainly symbolic - garnering the party support from abortion opponents - with little political cost to those not so fervent on the issue.

Schaller, who has worked in Democratic campaigns, says Republicans are in a no-win situation.

"If Roberts votes to overturn Roe, there will be wholesale defections from the GOP, especially among white women," he says. "If he votes to uphold Roe, the conservative base will be in an uproar because this is the first nominee of the post-evangelical era. Either way, there will be a Democratic windfall."

Forcing Republicans to cast a vote outlawing abortion would damage Republican attempts to maintain a middle-of-the-road image, Schaller contends, noting that the past two Republican presidential conventions have featured prime-time appearances by many pro-choice and pro-gay-rights Republicans, such as Rudolph W. Giuliani and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

"If those most energized partisans - the ones waiting for a Supreme Court opening hoping to overturn Roe v. Wade - become the face of the party, that would make it very difficult for a Republican Party trying to attract moderate suburban women," Schaller says.

Herb Smith, a political scientist at McDaniel College, concurs, saying, "If you want to knock out soccer moms and probably a pretty good part of NASCAR dads from the Republican Party, then overturn Roe v. Wade."

President Bush "is pretty much like Reagan in that he gives a lot of lip service to the extreme right of the party, but if he ever has to deliver to them, then it's goodbye, Republican majority," he says.

With Roe v. Wade in place, Republicans have been able to paint the Democrats into an extreme corner, making them defend unlimited access to abortion on demand to please their more radical abortion-rights elements. This puts the Democratic Party at odds with the polls that show that most Americans support legalized abortion but favor restrictions.

"I think Republicans have been able to take advantage of Roe v. Wade being there, as this allows them to work around the edges of the issue and propose various restrictions that have broad public support, things like bans on so-called partial-birth abortion or parental notification laws," Abramowitz says.

"But they can tell religious conservative groups that they would like to ban abortion but there is nothing they can do about it," he says.

However, if Roe were overturned, then there would be something they could do about it. That would change the political dynamics.

"If you look at the debate now, it is the Democrats that are stuck with defending things like partial-birth abortion, which is a loser," says Mark A. Graber, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, College Park. "If Roe v. Wade is overruled, in a great many states it will be Republicans who are stuck in an extremist position."

Says Schaller: "The people who will be really put to task are the true anti-abortion absolutists, who want it outlawed in every case but rape and incest. Roe v. Wade has given them a free pass."

Graber, author of Rethinking Abortion, says that when Roe was decided in 1973, four states had legalized abortion - New York, California, Alaska and Hawaii.

It was a controversial step at that time.

"In New York, the law was passed in 1971 and repealed the next year, but the governor, Nelson Rockefeller, vetoed the repeal," says Graber, who also teaches at Maryland's law school.

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