Late Edition: Staying the Course in the GOP

Texas committeeman Tim Lambert rolled a grenade into the middle of Republican National Committee deliberations in January when he proposed to terminate funding for Republican candidates who support partial birth abortion. His gesture predictably angered the opposition but, more to the point, seems to have been advanced with insufficient groundwork among his natural allies. In any event, his resolution lost on a 114-43 vote that found pro-lifers on both sides of the debate. Some of Lambert’s supporters, disheartened by the outcome, are now grumbling that they can no longer remain Republicans in good conscience. This temptation, while understandable, should be resisted: The hard truth is that for the foreseeable future the Republican Party remains the only effective vessel to convey the pro-life message in national politics.

That said, it must also be noted that Republican pro-lifers have a long list of grievances against their party. Their original efforts in the ’70s to insert platform language condemning Roe v. Wade met with stiff opposition from many party regulars, who to this day persist in the view that abortion is somehow an unfit subject for political discussion. Despite this resistance, and thanks to Ronald Reagan, the party embraced a strong pro-life position in 1980 in language that has remained essentially unchanged ever since. George Bush and Bob Dole, though nominally supportive of his stance, were less than enthusiastic about it and would have shed no tears had the platforms of 1988, 1992, and 1996 softened anti-abortion language or eliminated it altogether. Whatever their personal views, Dole and Bush were merely reflecting the disposition of many Republicans who frequently criticize pro-lifers as single-issue obstructionists.

Defenders of the unborn, bless them, have gallantly and successfully refused to yield an inch, and despite the dire warnings of their opponents within the GOP, the party has enjoyed unparalleled success in recent years. Even so, members of the pro-life faction within the party face a constant barrage of criticism for sticking by their principles. You can hardly blame them for feeling more than a little put out when they are called “extremists” by people who think the fate of the Republic will be decided by next year’s budget deficit but are utterly indifferent to laws that legitimate the killing of unborn children. And you can understand, therefore, why some of them might be tempted to bolt their party.

Defeat of the Lambert proposal, however, is only a temporary setback in the continuing struggle for the soul of the Republican Party, and to abandon that effort now will ensure the isolation of the pro-life movement in national politics. What is desirable in principle cannot always be accomplished in fact; that is the difference between philosophy and politics. While politics must be guided by a proper understanding of man’s moral end, there is seldom a one-to-one correlation between what is right simply and the ability to get it done. The effectuation of the good in politics calls for prudence, which is rightly called one of the moral virtues. Not every disagreement over tactics and timing, after all, has to be considered a compromise with the devil.

In the matter at hand, Lambert’s proposal has been replaced with a resolution reaffirming the GOP’s commitment to outlaw partial birth abortion. Passage of that resolution not only bodes well for retention of strong pro-life language in the 2000 platform, but virtually ensures that any Republican who hopes to win the presidential nomination must likewise declare his commitment to end this barbaric practice. And in the shorter term, the resolution will give new impetus to the Republican-controlled Congress to pass a partial birth abortion ban in the current session. Should that effort fail, Republican congressional candidates will have a field day attacking the Democrats as the party of infanticide. In such an atmosphere, it will not matter very much that certain morally obtuse Republicans continue to avert their gaze from the slaughter of the innocents. In the fullness of time they, and not pro-lifers, will be seen as the true extremists.

This scenario will not inexorably unfold by itself. Pro-life activists will have to push and push and push again to make it come about, and the temporary setback on the Lambert proposal should not deter them from doing what has to be done. There will be resistance within the party, as always, but recent polls confirm that public tolerance for late term abortions, never strong to begin with, may have reached the point of exhaustion. The ban against the barbarism of partial birth abortion was vetoed by President Clinton two years ago, but the important point to remember is that it carried the House with 80% GOP support and is only three votes shy in the Senate of garnering a veto-proof majority. Maintaining a strong pro-life presence within the GOP is essential to victory.

Michael M. Uhlmann

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Michael Martin Uhlmann (1939-2019) served as professor of government in the department of politics and policy at Claremont Graduate University and Claremont McKenna College. Prior to teaching at Claremont, Dr. Uhlmann was a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Vice President for Public Policy Research at the Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and taught at the George Mason University Law School.

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