Rudy Tests the Pro-Lifers

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Watch what happens when Republicans can no longer evade the abortion issue.

After trying to have it all ways and looking silly in the process, Rudy Giuliani finally came out and restated his support for a woman's right to choose.

If he sticks with his decision, Giuliani will end the free ride his party has enjoyed on an issue that's supposed to be about morality but has more often been used cynically to harvest votes.

Giuliani will also test the seriousness of those who claim that abortion is the decisive issue in the political choices they make.

Will conservative Catholic bishops and intellectuals, along with evangelical preachers and political entrepreneurs, be as tough on Giuliani as they were on John Kerry in the 2004 presidential campaign? If they are not, how will they defend themselves against charges of partisan or ideological hypocrisy?

Republicans in power have done remarkably little to live up to their promises to antiabortion voters. Yes, President Bush signed the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act, and the two justices Bush appointed to the Supreme Court joined the 5 to 4 majority to uphold it. But all third-trimester abortions combined account for less than 1 percent of abortions.

Republicans are steadfast against using public money to pay for abortions. That leaves abortions available to better-off women who can afford them and who often vote Republican. It limits access only for low-income women, who rarely vote Republican.

What Republicans have stopped pushing, or even talking much about, is a constitutional amendment to repeal Roe v. Wade, the landmark case legalizing abortion. They prefer gauzy language that sends soothing messages to pro-lifers without upsetting voters who favor abortion rights.

Bush has been a master at insisting on his devotion to "the culture of life" while avoiding hard commitments that might offend advocates of choice. His crafty approach paid substantial dividends in the 2004 election.

Media exit polls found that 55 percent of voters surveyed thought abortion should be "always" or "mostly" legal, while 42 percent said it should be "always" or "mostly" illegal.

Given these numbers, how did the antiabortion candidate win? Bush took three-quarters of the votes cast by abortion opponents, but he also managed to get the votes of one-third of those who favored legal abortion -- meaning that his artful hedging worked. Republicans would love to keep that game going.

But Giuliani's performance in the Republican presidential debate earlier this month showed how easy it is to fall off the abortion high wire.

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