It caused, in Washington, what Henry James would have called a “minor tremor of the public tail,” but in the camp of the pro-life movement it set off explosions throughout the landscape: Two of my own friends, George Weigel and William Kristol — both ardent defenders of the pro-life cause — sought to offer some new language for the Republican platform on abortion. But why the new language? For years, the Republican platform has been firmly set in favor of overruling Roe v. Wade through a constitutional amendment, and extending protections to the unborn.
The very strength of the platform seemed to feed the complaints of some Republicans that the Party was being taken over by an alien band that treats certain moral and religious questions with an unseemly seriousness. That is to say, a seriousness well out of scale with anything the complainers are likely to encounter in their own circles, at the country club or the board room.
Republicans of this temper have found prominent spokesmen in Christine Whitman, Pete Wilson, and William Weld, and so the question was whether there was some way to remove the pretexts for these complaints, while preserving the dominant cast of the Republican Party as a pro- life party. The proposal for a constitutional amendment represented an ultimate end, which has had no real prospect of passing. At the same time, as I have argued in this space, it was altogether too easy for certain politicians to endorse a measure that had no chance of passing — and then say nothing in particular about abortion in the rest of their campaigns.
What if the Party decided to drop the language about a constitutional amendment, but then sought to suggest a variety of measures for extending the protections of the law to the unborn? Could a move of that kind disarm the Christine Whitmans and Pete Wilsons? A bit of redrafting might skillfully remove the ground of their complaints, while at the same time it might help to refocus the platform and firm up the commitment of the Party.
That, it seems to me, is what Weigel and Kristol sought to do. In the language they proposed, the Republican platform on abortion would be led by a short, crisp manifesto: “We are a pro-life party.” That declaration, unaffected by shadings, would be followed by the avowal that “We regard the nation’s one and a half million annual abortions as a great tragedy. Our goal is unequivocal: a society in which every unborn child is welcomed in life and protected in law.” In pursuit of that goal, the statement declares for “a comprehensive pro-life strategy: one that recognizes the need for an extensive and ongoing process of public persuasion, and one that provides care, assistance, and alternatives to women caught in the dilemma of unwanted pregnancy — even as it works to curb the incidence of abortion by seeking legal protection for the unborn to the maximum degree possible.”
Summoning language. How could it cause a controversy among veterans of the pro-life movement? The answer may lie in Edmund Burke’s dictum: refined policy is ever the parent of confusion. It required a rare combination of subtlety and forcefulness to shape a new statement, but for the project to succeed, the statement had to be read by its audience with a comparable subtlety. And yet, the meaning of the statement is likely to be reduced, by the media and the public, to its main, animating purpose: to mollify the pro-choice Republicans by “moderating” the platform on abortion. The story line is likely to be: “Republicans Return to the Mainstream on Abortion — Rebuff for the Christian Right.” Hence, Catch-22: The new language can succeed in its purpose only if a message of this kind is broadcast; but if it is, it will send a signal even more emphatic and alarming to the pro-life people in the Party.
Since the Reagan campaign in 1980, the Republican Party has drawn new sources of support from evangelicals and from pro-life people suddenly moved to political action. That movement has even accelerated over the last year, as many former Democrats have made explicit conversions. But a conspicuous gesture now to “moderate” the policy on abortion will be read quite clearly as a sign that the Party does not mean to be any longer the welcoming, political home for these boat people from the Democratic Party.
No one has been more important in the shaping of the platform on abortion than Phyllis Schlafly, who has been at every Republican convention since 1952. It was only to be expected that Mrs. Schlafly would resist any falling back from the heights she had helped to secure. She has offered a counter-statement to meet the challenge posed by Weigel and Kristol, no less stirring and subtle. And yet the subtlety covers her own offer of an accommodation. “The Republican Party,” she declares, “was founded on the principle that no human being should be considered the property of another, and on a repudiation of the Dred Scott decision.” She appeals then to Lincoln, the Declaration of Independence, and the founding principles. She would have the Party proclaim that “we repudiate the Roe v. Wade decision . . . [and we] will work to restore the right to life to the class of human beings from whom it has been unjustly taken away.” In the sweep of this affirmation, she too seems to have put aside the call for a constitutional amendment.
What may be revealed in this exchange is that both sides have accepted the same premises and the main lines of strategy: The chief strategic interest of the pro-life movement right now is the removal of the Clinton administration, with its vicious executive orders and its relentless promotion of abortion on every front, domestic and foreign.
And yet, there may be a better way to disarm the pro-choice Republicans without repelling the pro-lifers. There is no need to jettison the proposal for a constitutional amendment. It is not strictly needed, but it need not be discarded. It may stand, as a plausible and ultimate end, to make the protection of human life, even its earliest stages, part of the basic law. But in the meantime, the focus could be placed on any number of those modest, first steps we have discussed in these pages. The Party might simply point out that even the people who describe themselves as “pro-choice” favor some restrictions on abortion. The Party may rightly claim to speak now for the broad consensus of opinion in the country, that unborn children deserve some protection, that some abortions may be restrained, that some children may be saved. As the “pro-life” party, it may seek to make a new, moderate beginning: to start saving some lives, wherever it can — even only a handful of lives — and to widen, step by step, the protections of the law. Would the Christine Whitmans really threaten a walkout of the Convention, if the Party sought to protect the lives of the children who survived abortions? Or if it sought to save children in late-term abortions, where the vast majority of people in the country think that abortions should not be performed?
The problem with the Weigel-Kristol plan in its current form is that it makes the symbolic move of abandoning the constitutional amendment, while it puts nothing more modest or concrete on the table — nothing that can focus the attention of the public or the media; nothing that would induce a presidential candidate to speak to the issue. That sense of the matter has been deepened by the impression that Weigel and Kristol would shift the focus from the federal government to the States. Their accent is on the people acting again politically in their “legislatures.” The writers have resisted that reading of their proposal, but even sympathetic readers have read it in that way, perhaps because the statement never mentions any concrete measure that the Congress might undertake in restricting abortions.
In combination, then, these ingredients could produce a debilitating result: Even with a platform calling for the overthrow of Roe v. Wade, George Bush was never moved to put together two consecutive sentences on the subject. But why should a candidate be any more disposed to discourse on the jurisprudence of Roe v. Wade if there is no proposal on the table to overturn it? And why should he talk about abortion at all if there is nothing in particular that we expect the federal government to do?
For years, the opinions and the wholesome prejudices of the public have coincided more closely with those of the pro-life movement than with the partisans of abortion. And yet there has been no presidential candidate who has been able to cultivate these political assets through the simple device of talking about abortion. Against the background of that experience, the proposal by Weigel and Kristol runs the risk of settling upon candidates an even freer license to avoid the subject altogether. But Weigel and Kristol have also rendered the service of drawing attention to the subject and inducing Republicans to talk about it. For all we know then, the writers might have wrought better than they knew: Two years hence, this proposal by Weigel and Kristol might be seen as the first step in a chain of moves that restored speech to Republican candidates.