The Whig party is the only one in American history to disappear from the political landscape. It was done in by an intractable issue - abolition. Other policy dilemmas, personality clashes, and Whig irrelevance to the growing Western population also contributed to the party's demise. But it was the question of slavery and its abolition that ultimately demolished it.
The Whigs were replaced in 1856 by the Republican party. Now, 140 years later, the Republicans are faced with a similar intractable issue - abortion - as they wrap up their last convention of this century.
It isn't axiomatic that the abortion issue will destroy the Republican party as abolition destroyed the Whigs. They both have dissimilarities; for example, ending slavery had profound economic consequences while abortion does not. But they also have striking similarities. After years of argument over both abolition and abortion no negotiated compromises were, or have been, achieved. Abolition was finally victorious after the cruelest war in American history. Following the Supreme Court's Roe vs. Wade ruling in 1973, groups such as the Christian Coalition seized upon abortion and thrust it into the political matrix of the Republican party. If there is a logic at work here, it is the hope that a Republican president will be able to appoint a sufficient number of Supreme Court justices to reverse Roe vs. Wade.
The Republican party cannot rid itself of the pro-life plank in its party platform ratified in San Diego this week. In his campaign this fall, Bob Dole will ignore the issue as much as possible. The destructive potential of abortion to the Republican party lies in the future and depends on what prominence it achieves in the public view of the party as a whole.
*Rod MacLeish is Monitor Radio's Washington editor.