It's Not Just Abortion, It's an Entire Agenda
For GOP, the issue symbolizes power of Christian right
SAN DIEGO — When Bob Dole addressed the Republican platform committee via satellite this week, he ignored the issue that has dominated debate here: abortion.
It was an omission born, no doubt, of his desire to put the subject to rest and to steer attention toward his new economic plan. After all, the day before, the Republican candidate had given abortion opponents what they wanted - a strong anti-abortion plank and removal of language granting "tolerance" to Republicans who back abortion rights.
But alas, the issue just won't go away. Ominous rumblings are coming from abortion-rights governors in key states, who say a floor fight at next week's convention may be inevitable. Some Republicans are now talking about allowing an unprecedented minority report from the convention stating the abortion-rights position.
Why has abortion got the Republican Party - and its soon-to-be nominee - all tied up in knots? "The truth is the abortion issue is a unique issue," says Vin Weber, co-chairman of Mr. Dole's campaign. "And, you know, when Dole got into this he knew it was going to be a very difficult and painful process."
The irony is that most voters do not rank abortion among their top concerns. But in a broader sense, abortion has come to symbolize the entire social agenda of Christian conservatives, a politically energized constituency that frightens some moderates by its fervency - and its growing political savvy.
Abortion "has probably become a bit of a Rorschach test," says Ralph Reed, executive director of the Christian Coalition. "It means something politically that transcends the substance of the issue itself."
For Republican advocates of abortion rights, the sight of conservative activists emerging victorious on the abortion plank is alarming. But from the perspective of Mr. Weber, who took part in the negotiations, "we just had no choice." The platform subcommittee that handled the abortion plank overwhelmingly favored the Christian conservative position.
When it came time to negotiate the final wording of the plank, no GOP abortion-rights representatives were at the table. "We know where the votes are in the committee," says Weber. "We were not talking about a theoretical exercise. We were talking about how to work a process through a subcommittee, and committee, then the floor of the convention that would bring the party together as much as we could, but more importantly that would end this discussion in time for us to get down to the main message of the campaign."
In other words, he concluded, the main aim was to prevent a floor fight - not to preserve Dole's goal of putting tolerance language in the abortion plank, an assertion Dole once called "nonnegotiable," even though he opposes abortion.
Republican abortion-rights advocates charge that the whole platform process was stacked. They charge that Rep. Henry Hyde (R) of Illinois, chairman of the platform committee and one of Congress's strongest abortion foes, packed the committee with abortion opponents.
"This is about pandering and power and politics," says Ann Stone, head of Republicans for Choice. "It's king of the hill - who will be king of the hill at the end of this, Ralph Reed and [anti-abortion activist] Gary Bauer or the pro-choice majority?"
Privately, some Dole aides grumble that Congressman Hyde let them down. But the cold calculation in Dole's camp is that a messy convention hurts the party more than a less-than-optimal platform.
But abortion-rights Republicans worry that the highly publicized abortion plank only deepens Dole's problem with women voters and sends the wrong signal to moderates in general. The abortion fight could cost Republicans control of Congress, some worry. More fundamental, they say, the battle over the abortion plank amounts to nothing less than a battle for the soul of the party.
"Republicans are going to lose over this," says Anne Patton of the San Diego chapter of the National Women's Political Caucus Republican Task Force. "It could destroy the party."
Abortion-rights Republicans point out their goal is to remove the abortion plank altogether - "Yank the Plank," proclaim their lapel stickers. But they do not seek to replace it with a plank that represents their own views. The platform should be silent on abortion, they say. But they know that's too much to ask, and they're willing to settle for a statement in the platform explicitly acknowledging the party's tolerance of members' abortion-rights views.
Some pro-choice Republicans working the preconvention corridors alongside Christian conservatives say they will still vote for Dole regardless of the abortion plank, but others say they won't. One pro-choice GOP woman from a Southern state says she can't vote for Dole in good conscience, and declines to give her name for fear that she'll be attacked at home. "It's gotten that bad," she says.
In a positive vein, Ms. Stone of Republicans for Choice notes that the view she represents is getting better treatment from the party than it did four years ago.
"At least we've been acknowledged," Stone says. "They're attempting to welcome us, much to the chagrin of some of the people in this hallway."