What is especially enjoyable about the Republican Party's agony over abortion is that the leading Republican lights are almost surely pro-choice in their hearts. Not Pat Buchanan and not Gary Bauer, but they're not the ones doing the agonizing. The agonizers are folks like Elizabeth Dole and George W. Bush, and their agony isn't moral, goodness knows. It's political: How to prevent the party's hard-line pro-life stance from driving millions of voters away.
Dole and Bush and Dan Quayle and John McCain and Steve Forbes and the rest all claim to share the hard-line anti-abortion view, as they must in order to be leading Republican lights in the first place. But who believes them? Does Liddy Dole really think abortion is equivalent to infanticide? Is George W. 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. Even Bill Clinton might have trouble executing this double-reverse flip-flop fib off the high board. Are lesser pols up to it?
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.
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 persons "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, since 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. 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 Lee Atwater called "the big tent." There's room for everybody. John McCain says about the abortion issue, "I believe we are an inclusive party and we can be so without changing our principles." What does this mean? Does it mean that people should feel free to vote Republican even if they disagree with what the Republican Party stands for? A nice offer, though I wouldn't expect many takers. Or does it mean that because there are so many people to divvy up, the two parties needn't stand for anything in particular? Not a big vote-getter either.
Asked about abortion the other day 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. This is a huge country. It's a continent really. There are 270 million of us, and there are only two parties. So why wouldn't we have some 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 it. Elizabeth Dole goes further: There's no point in even discussing it. Last week she 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." George W., sounding like a very promising cross between his father and Dan 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 Republican and Democratic platforms 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. If she actually believed that millions of human lives were at stake, the former head of the Red Cross surely wouldn't try to build a holy crusade around refusal to discuss the matter. Nor would she blame the media for an "inordinate focus" on the issue.
Lamar Alexander's way out is worth noting, though it doesn't rise to the level of illogic. Lamar says that we should "move state-by-state to change laws and culture so there will be fewer abortions," and therefore "I do not support a constitutional amendment that would overturn Roe vs. Wade." Well, you see, Lamar, Roe vs. Wade held that state anti-abortion laws are unconstitutional. That's what it was all about! Maybe--to give him the extreme benefit of the doubt--Lamar means that he favors overturning Roe by Supreme Court decision rather than by constitutional amendment. This is an unlikely occurrence and, combined with the state-by-state business, a rather leisurely approach if you honestly believe that the slaughter of innocents is going on daily.
Finally, since the subject is Republicans, logic, jurisprudence, and advanced metaphysical speculation, you're probably wondering where Dan Quayle comes down. Quayle agrees with everybody else that a constitutional amendment is not going to happen. "But that's not important. The important issue is where you stand on this important debate. I have always been pro-life." In other words, as long as you profess to believe that human life begins at conception and that abortion is murder, it's not important whether you actually do anything about it.
This is, of course, a truer statement of the Republican position on abortion than any other candidate's. But it is more than that. Quayle may actually have produced a compromise in what seemed to be a war of moral absolutes. Speaking, if I may, for the pro-choice side of the debate: Pro-lifers may profess any principles they care to, as long as they agree not to act on them. They can actually believe what they say, for all I care. Though I doubt, in the case of most Republican presidential candidates, that this last concession will be necessary.