The Republicans who want to revive their party and lead it are staking out new ground and visiting new locales. But even in familiar settings conservatives are conveying a more nuanced message, as did Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) at the pro-life Susan B. Anthony group gala Thursday night.
Ryan is a devoted pro-life advocate. But rather than stir up the base he tried to lead the pro-lifers out of their comfort zone. He reminded them, “To advance the pro-life cause, we need to work with people who consider themselves pro-choice—because our task isn’t to purge our ranks. It’s to grow them. We need to expand our horizon—because our critics say our visions one of self-denial—when in fact it’s one of self-fulfillment.” He counseled them on tone; obviously with memories of Todd Akin (whom the group stuck with until the bitter end in 2012) still fresh in mind, he said, “We have to make the case. We have to do it with patience—and with good cheer. We have to show the pro-life cause isn’t just the cause of the unborn. It’s also the cause of the poor—and of the powerless.” And while harkening back to Abraham Lincoln, the great Emancipator with whom anti-abortion advocates often identify, he cautioned, “Like Lincoln, we should promote civility and compromise in pursuit of the common good.”
Because he is such a devoted friend to the pro-life movement he could make his case to the audience in both moral and scientific terms (stressing how sonogram technology has furthered its cause), but then stress politically how to accomplish its goals:
I think we should plant flags in the law—small changes that raise questions about abortion. People who consider themselves pro-choice don’t agree with us on everything. But many agree we should stop taxpayer funding of abortion. That’s “a flag.” Many agree we should require parental notification. That’s another “flag.” Many agree we should restore the Mexico City policy. That’s one more “flag.” Even if we can’t agree on the final step, we can work with them on a few concrete steps. We can raise doubts—and save lives. Such painstaking work can be tiring. The give-and-take of legislation usually is. But we can’t let up. And we have to recognize opportunities for what they are.
And rather than go after persuadable Republicans, he urged the group to look for half-a loaf opportunities:
Take my friend, former congressman Bob Dold. A pro-choice Republican from Illinois, he was an outspoken advocate for Planned Parenthood. Yet he voted to stop Obamacare from covering abortion. And he voted to allow doctors to refuse to perform abortions on conscience grounds. Last year, he lost to a Democrat who today is another down-the-line, pro-choice stalwart in the House. Dold was an ally of our cause. We need to work with others like him.
Labels can be misleading. A pro-choice Republican senator from Massachusetts nearly derailed Obamacare just by being elected. But a pro-life Democratic congressman from Michigan delivered the votes that passed it into law.
I quote at length his speech because it is a near-perfect example of how a conviction politician meshes principle with practical politics. In short, it was a speech about not making the perfect the enemy of the good.
That is a lesson that is transferrable to nearly every public policy issue. Do conservatives want a Republican who will send marriage to the states or a Democrat who wants to prohibit states from denying same-sex marriage? Do they want a Republican senator from Pennsylvania who can dilute anti-gun legislation and stand with Republicans on everything from taxes to energy to Israel or do they want another Democrat to rubber-stamp Obama’s policies?
There is a childish quality in quadrants in the right wing from people who should know better who insist the good is the enemy of the perfect. The aim of some in the base is to drum up readers or donors, not to expand the party’s reach to occasional voters who might side with the GOP every two or four years. Their goal is not the GOP’s goal, and in fact these purists often work in opposition to the interests of a national party that wants to construct majorities and appeal to a mass audience in order to achieve its agenda.
You didn’t hear Ryan waver in his staunch pro-life beliefs one iota, but neither did he encourage those in attendance to reject small and medium-sized gains. This is Politics 101, and if the GOP is to make up for lost ground it will have to re-learn the lessons Ryan was presenting. On the other hand, it can just keep on losing elections.