Coming into their San Diego Convention, the mood of the Republican Party was despondent, almost funereal. Now the GOP acts like a man who just received a death-row reprieve.
With a single stroke, the Dole campaign transformed itself from bumbling confusion into a plausible contender. Desperation may have mothered Jack Kemp’s selection as vice-presidential nominee, but in choosing him, Bob Dole made the wisest decision of his long political career. It could not have been easy, but in their willingness to bury vanity for the sake of a larger goal, the two showed a becoming magnanimity. If a similar spirit informs their discussion of major policy issues, Mr. Clinton will be packing for Little Rock.
The Convention itself was a week-long exercise in caring and compassion that studiously avoided debate and at times descended into bathos. But Ronald Reagan, who owns the GOP’s head no less than its heart, understood that you can’t win the war of ideas with five-minute sound bites or film clips accompanied by syrupy music. For him, politics was more than the art of manipulating men’s feelings. Reagan recognized the power of ideas to move men’s souls. Now both parties sing from a hymnbook whose music and lyrics are his. To be sure, he relied heavily on modern media techniques, but he never forgot that the aspirations of men transcend their appetites. In this, Reagan was the true heir of Abraham Lincoln, who understood that he who controls opinion in a democracy controls everything.
Jack Kemp intuitively grasps the same truth. Like his heroes, Lincoln and Reagan, he knows that the human soul hungers for nobility of purpose. By acting intelligently on that insight, he could help Mr. Dole into the White House and simultaneously secure a place in the hearts of his countrymen.
To win in November, the GOP must secure Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. These five states have a sizeable Catholic vote, which no longer belongs to the Democrats, but has yet to be earned by the GOP. Reagan won it handily, in large part because his rhetoric radiated a sense of transcendence similar to that which resonates in the Catholic soul. When Catholics heard him, it was like listening to one of their own. George Bush, by contrast, was as tone-deaf to them as they were to him, and Dole at times exhibits the same tendency. Clinton’s veto of the partial-birth abortion ban, however, creates a vulnerability that even a plain-speaking man can exploit. The Catholic vote is hardly monolithic, but no issue is more likely to solidify it than Clinton’s veto.
Given divisions within the party and the nation, Republicans are leery of abortion as a campaign issue, but partial-birth abortion can be discussed without opening the entire pro-life agenda. Clinton has given his blessing to an iniquitous act that few doctors will defend and is denounced as barbaric even by otherwise pro-choice politicians and writers. It is infanticide without pretense, which is why Republicans in both Houses, including many liberals, voted to ban it by margins approaching 90 percent. A clearer demonstration of the GOP mainstream could not be imagined. GOP governors like Weld and Whitman, who support Clinton’s veto, reflect the prejudice of their class far more than they do the sentiment of their party or their country.
Clinton has said repeatedly that he wants to make abortion safe, legal and rare, yet his veto demonstrates that there is no abortion, however monstrous, that he will not support. He has had a free ride only because Republicans thus far have refused to exploit his moral obtuseness and hypocrisy. But if Republicans were smart, they’d realize that no other issue is even remotely close in its potential to galvanize Catholic voters. Jack Kemp surely knows this. Witness his opening salvo on the subject in Buffalo on August 18. In his next act of leadership he ought to instruct his running-mate and his party.