For a while, it seemed as if the full gravity of the abortion controversy might be brought to the center of a presidential campaign. Candidates, both in person and in numerous statements by their staffs, fought to establish their credentials with their natural constituencies—pro-life with Republicans, pro-abortion with Democrats. But as the field narrows, and regardless of who wins his party’s nomination, it is unlikely that abortion in the general election will match the intensity it acquired during the early primaries.
On the Republican side, the presence of Bauer, Forbes, and Keyes ensured that the issue would receive prominent attention. The news media, which have trouble understanding how anyone but a religious zealot might oppose abortion, were only too happy to “tsk-tsk” the Republican battle as much ado about nothing. At best, it was an intramural struggle made necessary by the peculiar demography of Republican activists; at worst, it was a measure of how out of touch the GOP is with the general electorate. After the primaries, sanity would prevail and the nominee (whether Bush or McCain) would work his way toward the “center.”
That has certainly been the pattern in prior presidential cycles. This time McCain and Bush were forced by political necessity to say rather more about the subject during the early primaries than their advisers probably thought prudent. Getting back to the center wouldn’t be so easy, perhaps.
This prospect was enhanced by events on the Democratic side. Bill Bradley, increasingly desperate to gain some purchase on Al Gore’s lead, finally discovered his abortion record and questioned his bona fides as a feminist acolyte. In Democratic circles, that’s akin to calling someone a racist. Gore responded with his characteristic deny-fudge-waffle-spin-revise and with roughly the same credibility as his claim that he had invented the Internet and that he and Tipper were the inspiration for Love Story.
During late January and early February, he and Bradley duked it out for the title of King Herod. Depicting oneself as the slayer-in-chief of infants is not the sort of thing that even the most ideologically committed Democratic strategist commends in presidential campaigns. No serious Democratic contender in history has ever been foolish enough to put himself in such a position, not even Bill Clinton. Yet there Bradley and Gore were, going toe-to-toe for the honor of that dubious distinction.
The Bradley-Gore shootout was a measure of how deeply the culture of abortion has rooted itself in our politics. For a Republican candidate who has truly thought about the issue, the shameless, overt radicalism of the Democrats ought to have signaled political opportunity. But neither of the Republican front-runners, who were busy defending their own flanks against one another, and against Bauer, Forbes, and Keyes, chose to exploit it.
Perhaps they will take up the challenge in the fall, but odds are against it. Gov. Bush, who is more confident than Sen. McCain in such matters, reveals at times the trait that made many pro-lifers wary about his father. Although the elder Bush ran on pro-life platforms, he acted as if abortion were not the sort of thing one discussed in polite company. Whatever his shortcomings, Bush is a model of firmness and clarity when contrasted with McCain, who despite a generally respectable pro-life voting record, often speaks as if he just began to think about the issue yesterday afternoon. Both have a long way to go if they wish to engage the abortion question in the fall campaign.
Their campaign strategists will be guided by the understanding, at best half-true, that the public is genuinely ambivalent about abortion. For that reason, they are likely to counsel reticence beyond what is necessary to secure one’s base. The other half of the truth is that while the public is indeed ambivalent, it is for the most part ambivalently pro-life. Most people are not prepared to jettison Roe, but they do not support most of the excuses offered to justify abortion and, by substantial majorities, they reject partial-birth abortion.
A pro-life presidential candidate who wishes to tread these waters must have not only a good heart and uncommon courage, but the rhetorical art that draws the ambivalently pro-life onto firmer ground. Repeating formulaic responses and citing one’s voting record aren’t enough. So far, neither Bush nor McCain seems inclined to acquire the necessary art, which is why for the nth presidential campaign in a row, discussion of abortion will probably be relegated to the back burner.