Lifewatch: Enter Casey and Exit

As we went to press, Governor Casey announced the sudden end of the candidacy he had only recently declared. The following piece, written in the interval, may stand as an account of the perils foregone by that announcement — but also of the real possibilities, and the political advantages, that were dissipated by the way in which this withdrawal was staged.

The script might have been written by the late Rod Serling as an episode in “The Twilight Zone”: It appears that, since Day One of the Age of Clinton, the political world is convulsed into a turnabout every six months. The party of abortion, in control of the White House and the Congress, finds that it cannot enact its program. Its repeated aggressions, its bootless performance, helps bring about a revolution at the polls. A Republican majority is swept into Congress for the first time since the election of Eisenhower, and the tide carries in about 40 new pro-life members of the House. Clinton falls into carping at the sidelines in a lame attempt to preserve his relevance. Rumors begin to fly about Washington, talk about indictments coming over Whitewater in the spring or summer. More kibitzers are heard making book that Clinton will not finish his term. Verily, the landscape itself seems to be beckoning to the Republicans, to make their triumphant return, and soon there are candidates for president sprouting all over the scene. And just as we seem poised at the threshold of a political breakthrough . . . the two leading Republican candidates make it clear that they are backing away from the issue of abortion.

Bob Dole and Phil Gramm have certainly been counted, over the years, as friends of the pro-life movement. But it has been quite plain also that this issue does not summon their deepest passions, or even engage anything that would count as a genuine conviction. Both candidates have insisted that there is no “litmus test” on abortion, that the Republican party is quite as accommodating to people who are pro-choice as pro-life. Imagine, in another setting, the prospect of Lincoln saying that the Republican party is not only willing to make an accommodation with slavery where it exists, but that it has no objection to slavery in principle: that the party is equally open to people who regard slavery as a political and moral wrong, and those who regard it as a positive “good.” To say that the party is equally open to pro-lifers and pro-choicers is to say that the party has no settled view of the rightness or wrongness of abortion. With that construction, the issue of abortion simply cannot stand then among the concerns that are central, or even very important, to this party.

Bob Dole has remarked to interviewers that the issue of abortion is taken seriously, after all, by only about three per cent of the voters. And Phil Gramm recently jolted his former pro-life supporters when he remarked, on a nationally televised interview, that he would not take it as his mission, as president, to pursue the Republican platform in seeking a constitutional amendment to override Roe v. Wade. Of course, these comments must be taken in context, and they should be read with certain shadings. Two crafty politicians, pro-life in their sympathies, are trying to make themselves acceptable to voters who regard almost any concern for abortion as a mark of religious zealotry. Gramm and Dole are two estimable men, and pro-lifers may find themselves in the end voting for them. But it is evident also to pro-lifers that neither man has actually incorporated in his understanding the notion that real human lives are destroyed in abortion. If either one of them actually thought that about one and a half million people were being killed each year in abortions in this country, they would not be inclined to assume, so casually, that the issue stands at the periphery of our politics.

Still, it is certain now that the question will be debated in the Republican primaries. The field will contain, as explicitly pro-life candidates, Alan Keyes, Patrick Buchanan, and Battling Bob Dornan. But Buchanan, the most widely known, has also made subtle moves to recede on this issue. The weight of his agenda is elsewhere — on protectionism, immigration, affirmative action. On abortion, he speaks mainly about appointing strict-constructionists to the federal bench. But on the matter of moving, in legislation, to challenge the courts, or extend protections to the unborn, he has held back in a politic silence. Alan Keyes has made the issue of abortion the preeminent issue in his campaign, and he has spoken to the question in the most compelling way.

But in any sober reckoning, neither Keyes nor Buchanan seems to have more than the most marginal chance to gain the Republican nomination. The comparisons at the margin will now be telling, for a new ingredient was added at the end of March, and all of the political calculations will have to be made anew: Former Governor Robert Casey of Pennsylvania announced an “exploratory committee” to support a run for the presidency, and a challenge to Mr. Clinton in the Democratic primaries. In this particular case, there is no trace of doubt about the issue that animates the candidacy. Casey has been the most consistent, vocal opponent of abortion among governors or congressmen of either party. His plan would not be to act upon abortion in the most indirect way, or to seek some distant, constitutional amendment. His scheme would be to proceed with ordinary legislation, to challenge the courts, and begin extending protections to the unborn. He would offer, in short, a dramatic difference, not only from Clinton, but from most of the candidates in the Republican party who call themselves “pro-life.”

Under these conditions, an electoral matrix will be in place that could wreak havoc in the party system. Consider the calculations for the pro-life voters: Would you stay in the Republican primaries in order to record a protest vote for Alan Keyes or Patrick Buchanan? Or would you cross over to vote in the Democratic primary, where Casey would be reckoned a serious candidate, with a real chance to snatch the nomination from Clinton? Many pro-lifers would rightly be drawn to the first candidate determined to force a national debate on abortion. In that event, that sucking sound you hear would be the sound of pro-lifers moving, in mass, out of the Republican primaries, and we ought to be clear: They would be moving because neither Phil Gramm nor Bob Dole has given them any particular incentive to stay and vote there.

The damage to the Republican party could not be easily calculated. If the voters remaining in the Republican primaries produce candidates who are even more stridently pro-choice, or even more serenely detached on the issue of abortion, the pro-lifers will be ever more ready to detach themselves, and respond to the candidacy of a third party. In some recent estimates, about 40 per cent of the Republican vote has come from evangelicals and from people concerned about abortion. To detach those voters now from the Republican party is to declare a grand indifference to the voters who have brought the Republicans to the threshold of becoming the majority party.

But at the same time, this political detachment carries its perils for the pro-lifers as well. If Robert Casey succeeds, he may restore the Democratic party as it was before 1972, before the right to abortion became the central issue of the party in politics and jurisprudence. The very presence of Casey, as a serious threat to Clinton in the primaries, may be enough to bring pressure on Clinton for his own withdrawal in the style of Lyndon Johnson. The groups that now form the establishment of the Democratic party will not easily brook this takeover of “their” party by the old Democrats coming back. They may induce Richard Gephardt to enter the field as an alternative to Casey, but if Clinton himself does not withdraw, this maneuver may only split the pro-abortion vote in the Democratic primaries, and pave the way for Casey.

But if Casey wins, if he gains the nomination, this blessed event would still not be without grave dangers for the pro-lifers. The Democrats who have made abortion the center of their interests will not be held in the party by the claims of party loyalty. They will defect. They may turn to a third party, or hold back from voting, or they may even go over to the Republicans for the sake of making sure that Casey does not succeed. The nightmare for the pro-lifers would be the party realignment of 1896. The former Populist voters managed to take over the Democratic party, under the leadership of William Jennings Bryan. But that dramatic change merely precipitated the move of many old Democrats into the Republican party, and the Republicans became even more entrenched then as the majority party. The triumph of Robert Casey would hardly be a triumph for the pro-life cause if the pro-lifers suddenly found themselves in control of a Democratic party that was about to be thrust, decisively, into the position of the minority party. The pro-lifers would be isolated from their allies of the past 15 years, and the character of the Republican party, as the new majority party, would be altered for the worse. As Randall Jarrell would say, this is like dying on the wrong page of the almanac.

But these melancholy possibilities unfold precisely because Phil Gramm and Bob Dole have not engaged any part of their considerable wit for the sake of reaching out to their own, pro-life constituency. Each man may discover, when he awakens, that he has a possibility of winning those pro-lifers for himself, and that possibility may soon beget the incentive. Or it will, at least, if either man awakens in time from his political slumber. The mystery of the moment then surrounds Dole and Gramm. But with the withdrawal of Casey, that mystery may be dissolved: Gramm and Dole make no overtures because they have calculated, with a chilling sobriety, that the pro-lifers finally have nowhere else to go.


Hadley P. Arkes (born 1940) is an American political scientist and the Edward N. Ney Professor of Jurisprudence and American Institutions at Amherst College, where he has taught since 1966.

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