The abortion dilemma

George W. Bush has reinvented himself as a true conservative. But will pandering to the right on abortion make him unelectable in November?

Published February 8, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

A specter is haunting the presidential race: the return of abortion to the center of the political stage. In the courts, abortion is a settled issue. The constitutionality of Roe vs. Wade was reaffirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court eight years ago. But in the political realm, the issue of reproductive rights is still a divisive force.
While Al Gore and Bill Bradley wrangle over who is the real pro-choice candidate, the days before the New Hampshire primary found the supposed compassionate conservative George W. Bush running as fast and far to the pro-life right as he could; while John McCain, with a thunderously right-to-life voting record, declared a hypothetical abortion by his own daughter to be "a family decision" -- in other words, a matter of choice and privacy.

Now, heading into South Carolina and then Super Tuesday, Bush and McCain
find themselves facing an unattractive choice between the highly organized right-to-life voters who can swing Republican primaries and the pro-choice majority needed to win a general election.

For Republican strategists, no issue rouses more anxiety. "This is obviously a divisive issue much more for Republicans than Democrats," GOP pollster Frank Luntz said on CNBC recently. "Republicans would rather be discussing economic issues."

That is putting it mildly. Democratic pollster Celinda Lake says her latest data shows abortion "even more of a wedge issue than in the past." Traditionally, she says, the most committed right-to-life voters have outnumbered single-issue pro-choicers two-to-one. But this year, says Lake, "we have seen an increase in the number of single-issue pro-choice voters" to a level equalling the right-to-life faction.

What alarms Republicans like Luntz -- and has sent Bush and McCain into such political contortions -- is the memory of 1992. Just weeks before the GOP convention in San Diego nominated President Bush for a second term, the Supreme Court, dominated by Reagan-Bush nominees, stunned the nation by reaffirming "the central holding" of Roe vs. Wade, even while allowing states to pass some new restrictions like parental notification before a minor receives an abortion.

The Supreme Court's decision in Planned Parenthood vs. Casey ran like an electric charge through the presidential campaign that year.
"The constitutional right to choose is hanging by a thread," declared candidate Bill Clinton. "We are only one justice away from an outright reversal of Roe."

Eight years later, the legal climate is far different. With the replacement of anti-abortion Justice Byron White by Stephen Breyer, the present court's abortion-rights margin has risen to 6-3. But with the next president likely to nominate anywhere from three to five justices -- and potentially shifting that balance -- the issue has once again become a political question instead of a legal one.

The dangers of the issue for Republicans can be seen in John McCain's bobbing and weaving, which did not begin with questions about his daughter on that New Hampshire campaign bus. For years in Congress, McCain hewed to the right-to-life line with a vengeance. He has voted to prohibit abortion at U.S. military bases overseas, to deny federal funding to low-income women seeking abortions and to block funding to global family-planning agencies. Last year he sponsored the draconian Child Custody Protection Act, which would have made it a felony to transport a woman under 18 over state lines in order to evade a local parental-notification law.

Yet last summer, McCain told the San Francisco Chronicle that he would not "in the short term or even the long term" support efforts to overturn Roe vs. Wade, and that outlawing abortion would drive women to "illegal and dangerous operations." His Web site declares that the GOP must "welcome those who honestly differ" on abortion.

When asked in New Hampshire about what he would do if his daughter were to become pregnant, McCain at first said it was his daughter's decision alone, then shifted to "a family decision." Most commentators viewed McCain's shifting position as evidence of uncertainty. "Basically he fumbled the issue," said Luntz.

In fact it was careful positioning. McCain staked out precisely the terrain occupied by the largest single bloc of public opinion, which favors abortion being legal but supports parental notification. The positioning paid off in New Hampshire, where pro-choice independent voters turned to him in large numbers.

Bush, meanwhile, has responded to the abortion challenge with precisely the opposite tactic. Bush, who used to say he supports legal abortion in cases of rape, incest and the life of the mother, and who earlier this year declined to make opposing Roe vs. Wade a litmus test for Supreme Court nominees, now supports overturning Roe and would pass a human-life amendment to the Constitution without the three exceptions.

For Bush, this strategy represents a fundamental gamble. Indeed, it is possible that his extreme positioning in New Hampshire -- a vain effort to fend off McCain's surprisingly strong challenge -- may have already left him mortally wounded in the general election. Bush's compassionate conservatism was an appeal to suburban "soccer moms" -- an overwhelmingly pro-choice constituency. The phrase seemed to at least offer a distant echo of the historic stream of pro-choice Republicanism that was cut off by Reagan in the mid-'70s, when the Great Communicator forged his alliance with the right-to-life movement. Compassionate conservatism hinted at the reproductive rights moderation of George W.'s father, both of whom were among Planned Parenthood's most loyal GOP allies during their congressional careers.

But in New Hampshire George W. choked off any whiff of reproductive-rights tolerance. As the Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol put it last week, "You could make the case that 'compassionate conservatism' died Feb. 2," the day after the New Hampshire primary.

This was further illustrated last week when Dan Quayle added his support to Bush. As Celinda Lake observes, "The more Bush is pushed into the right-to-life corner, the harder it will be for him to hold his overall strategy together."

Just how profoundly difficult Bush's new dilemma will be is suggested by a recent Quinnipiac College poll of voters in New Jersey, a highly volatile swing state. Eighty-four percent of the state's voters believe abortion should be legal, a margin extending across all religious groups.

Thirty-eight percent favor some limits, such as parental notification.
Only 14 percent would ban abortion outright, the position now adopted by Bush.

But the issue has political implications for Democrats as well. Conventional wisdom dismissed Bill Bradley's New Hampshire attacks on Gore's former opposition to federal funding for abortion as desperate electioneering and irrelevant ancient history. But in a year in which character is a central campaign issue, Gore's change-of-perspective may offer Bradley some traction, especially if voters see either the vice president's old right-to-life rhetoric or his more recent pro-choice stands as pandering to constituencies.

"When people are asked to choose a 'character' issue they say abortion," Lake said. "They want to know if candidates will stand up for what they believe."

By Bruce Shapiro

Bruce Shapiro is national correspondent for Salon News.

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Abortion George W. Bush John Mccain R-ariz.