“Just once I’d like to see a ticket that I could be excited about,” said Susan Cullman, national co-chair of the Republican Pro-Choice Coalition. Settled in front of the television in a hotel suite, surrounded by her troops, Cullman had just watched George W. Bush debut Dick Cheney as the Republican vice presidential candidate — the very same Dick Cheney who, as a six-term congressman from Wyoming, boasted one of the most stalwart anti-abortion records on Capitol Hill.
For Cullman and the rest of the coalition, Bush’s decision to tap Cheney served as the disappointing end to a running mate search after he publicly elevated a number of pro-choice candidates, including Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge and New York Gov. George Pataki.
“[Cheney] even voted for a bill that would have defined a fetus as a person from the moment of conception!” said Lynn Grefe, the group’s national director, from one corner of the pink couch she shared with Cullman.
“From conception!” Cullman exclaimed. “That’s not even a fetus. Isn’t that a zygote?”
“What I want to know,” asked Mary Wright, a local Republican activist, “is, if a fetus is a person, can it own property?” Laughter erupted from the group of 12 or so people who crowded the room. From there, the list of potential fetal rights grew to the absurd as the group grew giddy, while Dr. LeRoy Carhart, the plaintiff in the case involving a Nebraska partial-birth abortion law which went to the U.S. Supreme Court last month, tried to suppress a smile.
Camped in Philadelphia as the GOP begins deliberations over its party platform, Cullman, Grefe and their comrades have come to town to lobby delegates to the platform committee in the hope of removing the party’s abortion plank, which calls for a constitutional amendment that would ban all abortion without exception. Though they’d prefer that their party simply take no position on abortion, they’d be happy to settle for a plank that stated the party’s respect for a range of positions, including pro-life and pro-choice. But even that seems a quixotic quest, since Bush appears poised to placate the party’s right wing by leaving the abortion language unchanged.
Quixotic or not, says Grefe, Bush’s choice of Cheney has invigorated her group for doing battle on the platform.
“Up until breakfast this morning, I thought it was all a creative ploy by the Bush campaign to divert attention while Bush considered others,” said Miranda Hooker, the 23-year-old state coordinator of the group’s Massachusetts chapter. “Now I see they’re just not that creative.”
While it’s unlikely that the Republican Pro-Choice Coalition can win its point in the platform hearings, the leadership of the Republican Party has begun to acknowledge that it can no longer shut out the pro-choice wing of the party. “They’ve been killing us with kindness,” says Grefe. “This is very different than last time. Four years ago, I felt like a leper.” Indeed, Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, chair of the platform committee, made a point of meeting with Grefe and Cullman two weeks ago, and Grefe refers to Thompson as “a great guy.”
As the result of a merger between Cullman’s Republican Coalition for Choice in Washington and Grefe’s Republican Pro-Choice Alliance of New York, the Republican Pro-Choice Coalition has raised $1 million so far this year, which she says will be used to spread the pro-choice gospel within the GOP.
It’s not just the group’s newfound fundraising prowess that sets Republican leaders on edge; there’s also Cullman’s reputation as a strategist. At the 1996 Republican National Convention in San Diego, Cullman came close to pulling off a floor fight over the platform language on abortion, which would have made for a messy scene on national television.
In order to bring an issue to the convention floor, six state delegations must band together to move on it. In ’96, Cullman had four delegations firmly in her camp — Maine, Massachusetts, California and Wyoming. Prior to the convention, New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, who led her state’s delegation, had made noises that seemed to indicate her willingness to jump into the fray. Smoke signals from Albany at the time indicated that, as went Whitman, so would go Gov. Pataki of New York.
But at the last minute, Whitman pulled back. Though she denied forbidding her delegates to join in the fight, former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Keane told a different story. When I interviewed him on the convention floor during Jack Kemp’s acceptance speech, Keane told me that the Jersey delegation had folded “because of the governor’s leadership.”
But Grefe is hoping to bring the fight to the floor of the convention this year. With a pro-life ticket, she says, “the platform offers the party its last chance” to show that it cares about the rights of women.