Look who came to the pro-choice Republican party

Published September 1, 2004 2:58AM (EDT)

Few guests could have been more unexpected at the Republican Majority for Choice party Tuesday evening than Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson. Throughout his 14-year term as Wisconsin governor and in his role in the Bush Cabinet, Thompson is one of the pro-choice movement's most loathed foes.

When he strode into Manhattan's Sky Club and shook the hand of the Salon reporter rather intimately, we were so sure it must be a lookalike -- or someone we knew but couldn't place -- that we let him pass without interrogation. But the fierce whispering amid mingling guests who recognized him instantly tipped us off. He was strolling through the crowd, shaking some hands, when we caught up with him again and asked him what on earth he was doing at the event.

"I think it's important to send the message that this is a big-tent party," Thompson said. "I'm here to make sure that everyone knows that President Bush is a compassionate conservative and that we are going to do our part to reach out to everyone in this party."

Thompson said the Republican platform would "probably never include" a pro-choice plank. When asked how he could make such a statement in the midst of a soiree at which pro-choice lawmakers claimed to be the majority of their party, Thompson replied, "There isn't any one platform that is going to make everyone happy. This year, we had a majority vote that once again reiterated its support of a pro-life platform. That doesn't mean there can't be some disagreement. But this party wants even those who disagree to feel included."

Thompson left a few minutes later.

The rest of the party was less eye-popping, though the disgruntlement factor was pretty high for a convention-week Republican event. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg did his stealth-Democrat thing by reminding the crowd, including former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld, former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, and Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, that he had agreed to attend only three convention events. One was for Latino Republicans, one for gay Republicans, and then this one, for the Pro-Choice Republicans.

"I have always believed that everyone has a right to be themselves," said Bloomberg, adding in his nebbish register that "sadly, some people seem to have a problem with that." Bloomberg was a Democrat until his run for New York mayor in 2001.

Specter has been a Republican for much longer. He told Salon that he thinks it's "entirely possible" that we will soon see a pro-choice Republican presidential candidate. "It was a fairly well-kept secret that I spent 14 months campaigning for president in 1996," he said. But, he said, he found it hard "to activate the pro-choice and moderate Republicans to get off the sidelines and onto the playing field." Doesn't that leave him frustrated with his own party? "I'm not frustrated; I'm activated," he said.

Whitman was more upbeat about the direction of her party. "I think we're seeing more of an openness than there was before," she said. "My frustration is that this is an issue at all; it just shouldn't be a political question. It's very much a personal issue and my view is actually the most conservative position -- government should not be in people's lives. I certainly respect those whose feelings are strongly on the other side of the fence, and the president is one of those people. I just want him to respect my position as well."

On the way out, Donna and Jack Moffly, registered Republicans, told Salon how their pro-choice stance will affect their vote. "What we don't want to do is vote for the devil we know, because he is a devil," said Moffly, the editor of Greenwich [Connecticut] magazine. Jack, the publisher of Greenwich, was less vociferous. "I don't want to see Bush back in office, even though I think Kerry is a weak candidate," he said. But the person they couldn't stop talking about was Tommy Thompson. "Can you believe he dared to come here?" asked Jack. "What gall!" said Donna.

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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