Remember pro-choice Republicans? They asked for so little--and they usually got it. But the elected officials among them could at least be counted on to show up and make a bit of a fuss at conventions and party functions. Remember a Bill Weld or a Christine Todd Whitman vaguely threatening a floor fight (even though we knew the threat was empty)? Or some California congressperson making the case for the big tent? Well, no more. The real news out of Philadelphia was what didn't happen. Sure, there were gospel choirs and rhythm and blues acts galore. But the party's stance on that enduring, signature wedge issue--abortion--remained firmly intact. And from all those pro-choice governors and members of Congress? Not a peep.
All of which left the handful of committed pro-choice Republicans at the GOP convention boiling mad. They didn't ask for so much, really: just an anemic platform line item pledging recognition and respect for pro-choice Republicans--something akin to the "tolerance language" Bob Dole made a cursory attempt to add to the platform in 1996. But they were shut down completely and threatened into silence generally. Pro-choicers knew the platform fight would be an uphill struggle--and they were prepared to accept either a pro-life platform or a pro-life running mate. But both?
Thus, what's sad about the lot of the GOP pro-choicers is not just the totality of their defeat; it's that their defeat is so total after they asked for so little in the first place, and that their party is intent on denying them even the slightest face-saving gesture. On day two of the convention, I sat down for an interview with Ann Stone, president of Republicans for Choice. Stone told me all about how the Bush campaign pressured pro-choice delegates into silence when she suddenly interrupted herself and started explaining how all hell is going to break loose when pro-life delegates realize that GOP Platform Chairman Tommy Thompson, the governor of Wisconsin, didn't include the word "abortion" in some hand-out synopsis of the party platform. If you're having a hard time following that, well, I did too. But apparently, that's the only kernel of victory Stone's group could take from the convention. And the smidgen of enthusiasm Stone is able to muster for this small prize is a sign of just how bad a convention this has been for pro-choice Republicans.
It wasn't supposed to be this way. For more than a dozen years, pro-choice Republicans have been warning their party about the perils of abortion politics. Uncompromising opposition to abortion was anathema to moderate swing voters, the pro-choicers argued; the party's position on the issue would forever hobble it in national races. And if the truth of that proposition were ever to be clearly demonstrated, it should have been this year. Government shutdowns and impeachment proceedings have put a premium on Reaching Out to the Moderate Voter. George W.'s whole campaign has been based upon the blunting of every one of his party's sharp edges in an effort to claim the political center. And on almost every count, the party's conservative rank and file have seemed willing to go along. So why not make room for some vague and modest expression of tolerance for abortion rights? Or, if not that, then at least tolerance for those Republicans who would choose to be tolerant of abortion rights?
Stone believes the banishment of all tolerance of choice--of even all talk of choice--was the price the Bush campaign paid to get religious conservatives to sit still as the rest of their fire-and-brimstone message was jettisoned. But the more likely explanation is that opposition to choice is simply a harder issue to fudge than opposition to affirmative action or regressive tax schemes. On race, the party "reached out" by booking a few old Motown acts without budging a bit on affirmative action or hate crimes legislation. There's no entertainer or symbolic figure that can be safely trotted out to signal a vague tolerance for choice: What are you going to do? Showcase a conservative singer who's known to have had an abortion? Besides, the pro-choicers were never really willing to fight tooth and claw the way the pro-lifers were, and everyone knew it.
What happens if Bush wins? That should be a scary prospect for a pro-choice activist like Stone. Presidential defeats in 1992 and 1996 provided pro-choicers in the GOP with ample fodder for their argument that opposition to abortion is an albatross around the party's neck. But if Bush can win with a down-the-line pro-life platform and a staunchly pro-life vice president, pro-choicers would have even less leverage within the party than they do now. And that would be pretty little indeed. ¤
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