Posted on May 08, 1995 in Washington Watch

Before the candidates of the two major American political parties debate one another over issues in the 1996 campaign, the Republicans and Democrats will each face their own internal clashes over the issues. In some cases these clashes will be so severe as to threaten the unity each party will need to mount a successful national campaign.

For the Republicans, the issue that threatens to destroy party unity is abortion, specifically whether to change the party’s traditional stand against the practice. The question dividing the Democrats is whether to continue the party’s equally traditional support for affirmative action programs. This week’s article will focus on the abortion debate, and I will follow-up in the near future with an article on the affirmative action debate.

Strong opposition to abortion has been a centerpiece of Republican party platforms for more than a generation. Following the 1972 Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade which legalized abortion, pro-life (anti-abortion) groups intensified their efforts and focused them on overturning the high court’s decision either by election or by passing laws to ban the practice. As the abortion-rights position has become increasingly identified with the Democrats, the major pro-life advocates, with few exceptions, have chosen the Republican party to carry their banner.

Republican leaders have taken to regularly pledging to support the appointment of anti-abortion judges to courts and have passed strong anti-abortion resolutions at party conventions.

But the abortion issue has become so hot in political terms that as the debate between the two parties intensifies, so, too, will the debate within each party intensify. At the 1992 Democratic convention, the pro-life Democratic Governor of Pennsylvania was not permitted to speak at the convention and was booed as he entered the convention hall in New York City, while the Republican who ran against him for Governor did appear on the podium in support of then-candidate Clinton. When two anti-abortion delegates attempted to introduce a pro-life resolution at the Democratic party platform hearings, they were booed, glared at, and their resolution finally died because it could not even garner one further vote of support (21 votes were needed to bring the issue to debate). By contrast, that same year a resolution on Palestinian statehood did receive just enough votes to be discussed.

In 1992, Republicans similarly showed a lack of tolerance for debate on abortion at their convention. Speaker after speaker denounced abortion-rights advocates and when a few abortion-rights supporters did speak, they were roundly booed. The Republican rhetoric on abortion was so harsh that some Republicans became worried that the party’s intolerance and overly narrow position on this issue could cost the party a victory in 1996.

Reflecting upon the 1992 Republican convention, former Vice President Dan Quayle stated that the harshness of the stand taken against abortion “turned off the American people and very badly hurt President Bush’s reelection effort.”

Hoping to avoid a repeat of the 1992 debacle, some Republican leaders have proposed a compromise. These leaders call their proposal the “big tent approach” – a term and concept originated by the late Republican consultant Lee Atwater – in order to preserve party unity. After the November 1994 elections, the “big tent” advocates noted that the Republicans based their victory on economic and other political questions (as opposed to social questions like abortion) and that a continued focus on these issues would lead the party to victory in 1996. They are, therefore, calling on their party’s strategists to reject abortion as the key test for Republican party membership and leadership. “Let us have a big tent,” they said, “where supporters and opponents of abortion could meet as Republicans who agree on most issues but agree to disagree on a few others.”

Such an approach may seem practical, but it has not stopped the divisive debate over abortion within the Republican party.

Opponents of abortion, especially the leaders of the religious right wing of the Republican party – which many now view as the most powerful and organized wing of the party – reject the idea of relegating abortion to a secondary level of importance. They argue that while it is true that the Republican “Contract with America” did not include any language on abortion, it was the conservative religious grass roots which raised the money, provided the volunteers and won the election for the Republicans in 1994. They may not have insisted then that their issues be in the Contract, but they will not take a back seat now that putting a Republican in the White House is within their reach.

The power of the group to shape the policy debate within the Republican party is becoming clearer each day. Two of the leading Republican candidates feel the heat coming from these forces.

A few months ago, in an effort to pose as a “big tent” advocate, Texas Senator Phil Graham stated that although he was an opponent of abortion, he would be willing to consider an abortion-rights advocate as his Vice Presidential running mate if he won the Republican nomination. But the religious right, upon which Graham is relying heavily for volunteers and votes, responded immediately. Ralph Reed, the Director of the Christian Coalition (which is the preeminent religious right organization in this country), said that under no circumstances would his group support the Republican party unless both the Presidential and Vice Presidential nominees were pro-life. No more “lip service” to the cause, Reed vowed. “Never again.”

And in a direct slap at Graham and the “big tent,” Gary Bauer, the head of the Family Research Council, said,

” We want the people who are in office because of our votes to take us seriously and quit acting like we are the black sheep of the family.”

Republican leaders, of course, must pay attention to statements such as these because the religious right is widely believed to control the Republican party organizations in 17 of 50 states, and they may represent more than half of the primary voters in many more states. In the face of these veiled threats, then, Graham backed away from his “big tent” position and reaffirmed his opposition to abortion.

As it stands right now, the three strongest opponents of abortion in the Republican contest for the President nomination are Alan Keyes, the African American former State Department official in the Reagan Administration; Pat Buchanan, the 1992 Presidential candidate and CNN commentator who served in the Nixon White House; and California Congressmen Robert Dornan. Keyes, for example, states in his standard campaign speech that “abortion is the number one issue of the campaign.” He argues that “Abortion and the pro-life issue are the central issues of our time.” They are the issues of “human rights and freedom for unborn children.”

Challenging these candidates quite vigorously from the other side are Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter and California Governor Pete Wilson. In fact, for the first few months Specter based his entire campaign on his opposition to a Republican party litmus test on abortion. He has been the leading proponent of the “big tent” approach and has continuously reminded his party of the role he and others believe that abortion debate played in Bush’s defeat.

While Keyes, Buchanan and Dornan accuse the front runners, Graham and Kansas Senator Bob Dole of being lukewarm in their opposition to abortion, Specter and Wilson hit them with the opposite charge of being lukewarm in their advocacy of the “big tent” approach.

In the background to this name-calling, the religious right are poised to be the power brokers who will decide the Republican campaign in 1996. In the hopes of maximizing their influence on all the candidates and pressing them to toe the line on their issues, they have not yet endorsed a candidate and are not expected to do so until late in the campaign.

It is in this highly charged political context that President Clinton has put his nomination of Dr. Henry Foster for Surgeon General before the Republican-controlled Senate. Since the position of Surgeon General is the top medical officer in the U.S., the nominee’s position on abortion has become an issue. While Republicans are trying to portray their opposition to Foster as based on what they call his “misleading statements” on the number of abortion he has performed during his more than two decades of medical practice, it is clear that their real opposition is based on the fact that he has performed abortions. Once again, these Republicans are anxious about the reaction of the religious right if they should vote to confirm Dr. Foster as Surgeon General.

Some commentators have accused the President of using the Foster nomination as a “wedge” to force a deepening of the division within the Republican party over the abortion issue before the 1996 elections. Others, however, point out that a program Foster founded and ran in Tennessee was recognized as one of President Bush’s “Thousand Points of Light,” so Foster was not always on the GOP black list. But whether or not the Clinton Administration intended to divide the Republicans with the Foster nomination, that is precisely how it has played out.

Even before Dr. Foster began his Senate Confirmation hearings, Senator Graham announced his intention to filibuster to deny a vote on the Foster nomination. A filibuster occurs when one Senator or a group of Senators use the Senate rules to engage in continuous debate which prevents any other action from being taken. It requires a vote of 60 Senators to end debate, but since the filibuster is a respected Senate tradition it can be hard to get those 60 votes. In the past, Senators have used the filibuster to wear down their opposition so that the issue against which they were protesting was finally abandoned.

In announcing his intention to filibuster, Graham was not only seeking to placate his critics in the conservative Christian right, but was also, no doubt, hoping to use the filibuster as a means of attracting attention to his Presidential campaign for as long as the filibuster lasted.

Not to be outdone by Graham, Senate Majority Leader Dole announced that, using his power as Majority Leader, he could and probably would block the Foster nomination from even being placed on the floor for a vote. This is a power that Senate Majority Leaders have but rarely use, especially with regard to such a highly placed appointment as Surgeon General.

Senator Dole, whose efforts to promote a spirit of bipartisanship within the Senate seem to be genuine, may not want to use this tactic; but given the highly charged atmosphere surrounding the abortion issue within the Republican party, he may not have a choice. In any case, the Foster nomination and abortion spells trouble for both the Republican leadership and the broader party.

If no further damaging or disqualifying evidence emerges in the ongoing hearings, it appears that the Senate committee will place Foster’s nomination before the full Senate for consideration. In that likely scenario, Dole will face the following choices:

The Majority Leader can refuse to schedule a vote, as he has suggested, in which case Foster’s nomination would be finished. But if he should do that, commentators would paint Dole as a captive of the religious right, even though his likely campaign strategy will not rely heavily on that group for votes or money. Such an identification, however, could cost Dole the support of those in the Republican party and the country, including some of the mainstream and institutional Republican organizers upon whom Dole would rely in a campaign, who strongly believe that a woman has the right to choose an abortion.

If, on the other hand, he schedules a vote, he gives Graham the opportunity to appear as the champion of the right wing through a filibuster. This may potentially alienate the Christian right whose support Dole cannot completely ignore if he hopes to emerge as a strong victor in the Republican party primaries. If Graham fails and the Senate proceeds to vote for the Foster nomination – which it may well do if given the chance, since enough liberal Republican Senators have already announced that they may support Foster – the conservative Christians will not blame Graham. But they will blame Dole for allowing the nomination to proceed in the first place.

So, in fact, the Democrats may have found the perfect “wedge” to divide and shake-up an overly confident Republican party. The Democrats are hoping that this “wedge” issue of abortion will be sharp enough to create lasting divisions within the Republican party which may not heal in time to allow the Republicans to recreate in 1996 their victories in the 1994 Congressional elections.

If abortion is a “wedge” issue that divides the Republicans, however, the Democrats can not rest easy because there is a “wedge” issue with the potential to divide them as well. Affirmative action may pose as great a threat to Democratic party unity as abortion poses to the Republicans. In a future article, I will explain the impact of this issue on Democratic party politics as we embark down the road toward the 1996 elections.

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