Commentary Magazine


Abortion and the GOP’s Future

In the ongoing debate over the possibilities available for those wanting to reform the Republican Party, I found Max’s post from yesterday especially interesting. Abortion is an issue on which many so-called “moderate” conservatives find it difficult to adhere to Party rules, because anti-abortion sentiment is mostly identified with the more religious camp of the GOP base, and is also an issue on which the American public seems to be moving away from the party. Not that Americans want abortions – but they a) don’t want abortion to become illegal (and are mostly against the overturning of Roe v. Wade), and b) don’t want abortion to be central to the political battle between right and left.

Max is right: abortion prevents the Party from nominating otherwise worthy candidates like Joe Lieberman (for VP) and Rudy Giuliani. However, making the case against this purist anti-abortion position on this ground is somewhat problematic. Arguably, this limiting abortion litmus-test is not unique to the Republican Party, but rather shared by both parties. The Republicans will never nominate a worthy pro-choice candidate the same way Democrats can hardly nominate a worthy pro-lifer to be their presidential candidate. In both cases, the problem isn’t the “party,” but rather the “primaries” and their tendency to overemphasize the power of the more ideological groups within each party.

Data presented by the “Republican Majority for Choice” suggests that most Republican voters, unlike the subset of Republican primary voters, would vote for a pro-choice candidate if they believed him to be the right candidate on all other matters. In a 2007 poll, for example, the group found “that 72% of Republicans asserted that the government should not play a role in controlling choices for women, believing instead that the decision to have an abortion should lie with women, their doctors, and their families. Further, the majority of the Party, 53%, believes that the GOP has spent too much time focusing on moral issues such as abortion and gay marriage.”

Just three months ago, the same group conducted a poll showing that “nearly 70 percent of Republican voters do not consider abortion as a litmus test for the party’s vice presidential nominee.” In a Gallup poll from May 2008, only 15% of pro-life voters polled said that their candidate “must” share their views on abortion in order for them to vote for him or her (for the pro-choice camp it was similar: only 11% saw their position as a “must” for their candidate). 53% of pro-lifers polled said it was “one of many” important issues, and for 31% it wasn’t even a “major issue.”

Thus, what both parties share as far as the abortion-litmus-test is concerned is the problem created by the laziness of the average voter. Going to the polls to vote for the president is fine, but going twice — first to select the nominee and second to elect the president – is just too much trouble. Suggesting that an anti-abortion stance should not be a defining quality of the Republican candidate is not as provocative as it might seem. The problem is more practical than it is moral or ideological: how does one neutralizes the power of the anti-abortion groups in the primary process?

Can such a goal be achieved? I don’t know. But a month ago, in an article by William Saletan — one of the leading experts on the politics of abortion and the author of Bearing Right: How conservatives won the abortion war – an alternative to reforming the primaries has been offered. Saletan’s argument sees the most critical role played by none other than Barack Obama:

We’re a pragmatic country. What disgusts most people about abortion as a political issue is that on that topic, unlike economics or foreign policy, nothing ever seems to be accomplished. It’s the same damned debate, election after election, with each side trying to scare you about the other. If only it were more like economics, where you can actually have growth-or maybe like energy, where you can develop a new source or a new technology. If Obama can make abortion more like those issues and couple it with a record of material progress in the form of fewer procedures, he’ll take much of the political heat out of it. He might even make it boring. Wouldn’t that be great?

For the Republican Party, it would definitely be great.

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