What Republicans Hoped to Avoid

In Foster, Clinton unintentionally found a 'wedge' that splits GOP

IN the nomination of Henry Foster as surgeon general the Clinton administration may have stumbled into abortion rights as a wedge issue to divide Republicans. Republican campaign chairman Lee Atwater called racial ''quotas'' and crime, personified by released convict Willie Horton, a ''wedge issue'' used to split black and white Democrats in 1988.

The White House probably did not have anything so Machiavellian in mind when it nominated the obstetrician-gynecologist. Dr. Foster's first confused responses about how many abortions he had performed raised an issue of credibility, an easy rallying ground for Republicans and some Democrats.

That was encouraged by signs that President Clinton, using tentative language like, ''If the facts are as I understand them,'' was preparing to do one of his famous cave-ins on a challenged nomination. But, within two days, a strategic decision appears to have been made to draw the line on abortion rights, or, as Mr. Clinton has put it, ''Abortion legal, safe, and rare.'' Foster announced, ''I believe in a woman's right to choose,'' preparing to fight.

Medical associations were encouraged to come out in Foster's defense with assurance that he would not be abandoned by the White House. Since then Republicans have found themselves with a problem. The congressional leadership was anxious not to have social issues, like abortion, distract it from its legislative agenda, and believed it had persuaded the Christian Coalition to go along. Only a few days before the Foster nomination, coalition President Ralph Reed stated that economic and social conservatives understood each other and could be ''civil'' in disagreeing on issues like abortion. But, in the face of the Foster nomination, the truce collapsed. Mr. Reed announced that abortion was a litmus test and Christian conservatives would not support the 1996 Republican ticket unless both candidates are ''foursquare in support of the right to life.''

Republicans don't need abortion as an issue in early presidential politics. When ex-Vice President Dan Quayle announced his withdrawal from the presidential race, Reed said, ''Let's see who jumps highest to get that vote.''

Sen. Phil Gramm jumped very high, coming out foursquare against Foster and against abortion. Senate majority leader Bob Dole jumped less high. Sen. Arlen Specter, another presidential aspirant, said he didn't want to see Foster ''railroaded'' and would reserve his position pending the confirmation hearings.

Welfare reform further complicates the issue. Rep. Henry Hyde (R), whose name is attached to the amendment banning Federal funding of abortion, has expressed concern that teenage girls, threatened with loss of cash benefits, may be encouraged to resort to abortion.

Suddenly the Clinton administration, fighting desperate rear-guard battles on crime legislation and other issues in the Republican ''Contract,'' finds itself unexpectedly blundering into an issue that thrusts into the heart of the Republican Party.

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