Why are George W. Bush and his party so skillful in dealing with the abortion issue, and why are Democrats so clumsy?
It turns out that Democrats willing to grapple seriously with these questions risk getting seriously trashed. It makes you wonder whether Democrats enjoy losing elections.
First, let's look at Bush's mastery. He warms the hearts of abortion's staunchest foes by appointing conservative judges and invoking the code words "a culture of life." But he rarely gets directly crosswise with supporters of abortion rights by explicitly calling for an end to abortion.
In the third debate last fall, John Kerry noted that while he would "not allow somebody to come in and change Roe v. Wade, the president has never said whether or not he would do that." In a 220-word reply, Bush never mentioned Roe and made a point of stressing, "I understand there's great differences on this issue of abortion." That's how Bush managed to win 38 percent of voters who told exit pollsters last year that they thought abortion should be "mostly legal."
More than that, the Republican Party has been utterly realistic, indeed ruthless, in engineering the nomination of pro-choice candidates if they had the better chance of winning. The amazing thing is that some of the staunchest opponents of abortion went right along and sidetracked allies if that was what victory required.
The best example: last year's Republican primary in Pennsylvania between Sen. Arlen Specter and Rep. Pat Toomey. Specter is pro-choice, Toomey pro-life. Guess who campaigned hard for Specter, following the dictates of Bush and the party establishment? None other than Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania's other Republican senator and one of the most resolute opponents of abortion in Congress. Santorum turned his back on his fellow pro-lifer because Specter, he said, was "an important ally to the president." Specter won the primary and held the seat for the GOP.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat, is a close student of these events. As the new chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, his job is to elect more Democrats. He's ruffled some feathers by thinking the way Karl Rove does, searching for the strongest Democratic candidate in a contested state and trying to prevent divisive primaries.
Schumer's initial salvo, ironically, involved a quest for a candidate to run against Santorum in 2006. According to Schumer, "it turned out that the strongest candidate in Pennsylvania, according to everyone we talked to, was Bob Casey." That would be Robert Casey Jr., the state treasurer whose name may sound familiar because his father, a pro-labor liberal, became a hero to the right-to-life movement when the Democrats denied him platform time at their 1992 convention. The son, like his father (who died in 2000), is pro-life.
It's hard to find a stronger supporter of abortion rights than Schumer. But he fears that the causes he cares about, including legal abortion, will be in jeopardy if Democrats continue to lose ground in the Senate. "If we lose three seats," Schumer said, "many of the things we've cherished and valued over the last 50 years would go out the window." Schumer pushed hard for Casey, and last week Barbara Hafer, a pro-choice former state treasurer, reluctantly took herself out of the contest.
A similar struggle is taking shape in Rhode Island, where the Senate Democratic leadership is, in theory, neutral but has seen polls indicating that Rep. James Langevin, another opponent of abortion, is the strongest potential Democrat against Sen. Lincoln Chafee, a moderate pro-choice Republican. The Democratic secretary of state, Matt Brown, who favors abortion rights, is a potential primary foe.
Enter Hollywood. Virginia Hopper, wife of actor Dennis Hopper, organized a letter with her pro-choice allies urging financial support for Brown: "This is even more important than one precious Senate seat; it is a fight to protect women and families, and a fight for the core and soul of our party." In a rather graceless warning, the Hopper letter declared that "money is the biggest and loudest message." Langevin deserves a writing Oscar for his tart reply: "I find it hard to believe people in Hollywood can relate to the struggles of working families in Rhode Island."
Karl Rove must be grinning about all this. By managing the abortion issue with considerable cunning, Republicans are winning the power to stack the courts with the very sorts of conservative judges the pro-choice movement fears. You have to wonder why it is so hard for so many Democrats to learn that a little open-mindedness on a very difficult question is not only a virtue but also a necessity.