THE only group in Washington more concerned than abortion-rights activists about President Bush's nomination of David Souter to the Supreme Court are the people who make their living electing Republicans to office.
Seared by the furor over last year's Webster decision, which merely gave states additional latitude to regulate abortion, few ranking Republican operatives still want the Supreme Court to overturn Roe vs. Wade, the landmark decision guaranteeing a woman's right to abortion.
But no one knows how to extricate the party from its commitment to do just that.
Among Republican strategists there is widespread -- if still largely private -- agreement that a decision undermining Roe could rip open the GOP coalition. "I don't think any professional in the party wants to see Roe overturned," said Republican consultant Roger J. Stone. "In the post-Webster environment, you could peel off young people, suburbanites, women and Jews -- I don't see any anxiousness in our party to do that."
Until the Webster decision, most Republicans -- whatever their feelings on the issue's morality -- considered opposition to abortion an electoral plus. It allowed the GOP to crystallize the enthusiasm of anti-abortion forces and conservative evangelicals who were surging into politics on the galvanizing conviction that America had lost its moral bearings. And, party strategists felt, the anti-abortion position cost them little with voters who disagreed -- as long as the courts did nothing to restrict abortion rights.
"It was easy to say in our platform that Roe should be overturned when there was no prospect of doing that," Stone said.
That was a shrewd, if cynical, calculation. The vast majority of Americans vote not on abstract ideology but tangible reality. For abortion opponents, the post-Roe world of 1.5 million annual legal abortions was distressingly tangible. For abortion-rights supporters, by contrast, the GOP's rhetoric was only an abstraction that in no way diminished their access to abortion. Many Republicans truly embraced the anti-abortion cause; but others less sympathetic understood that as long as the GOP failed to implement its restrictive agenda, it could enjoy the best of both worlds.
Implicitly recognizing that dynamic, the Reagan White House never seriously pushed a constitutional amendment to ban abortion. Bush has shown even less interest in a frontal legislative assault.
But since 1980, the GOP platform has called for appointment of judges "who respect . . . the sanctity of innocent human life." That commitment has conscripted the GOP into a decade-long game of political Russian roulette. Each time a vacancy opened on the Supreme Court, the Reagan White House put a bullet in another chamber, waited for a case challenging Roe to come before the justices, pulled the trigger -- and held its breath.
So far the cylinder has always come up empty, as the court refused to mount a direct challenge to the legal right to abortion.
But with four firm anti-Roe votes in place, Souter's nomination could tip the odds -- and force the GOP at last to redeem its long-standing debt to the anti-abortion forces. "This was a deal with the devil where we thought we would never have to pay the piper," said one nervous Republican consultant.
The conundrum facing the GOP is that while most strategists believe an adamant anti-abortion position is a losing hand over the long term, the public and personal commitments of many party leaders to the cause are too deep to shed easily.
Many Republican strategists consider the Souter nomination a masterstroke because his thin record on abortion sustains the hope of delaying a confrontation on the issue at least through the November elections.
But those contests are only the first stage of an extended political process whose stakes rise at each turn. In political terms, the impact of the Souter nomination hearings on this fall's elections are dwarfed by the potential fallout in 1992, if Souter wins confirmation and creates a majority for reversing the Roe vs. Wade decision itself.
Analysts in both parties agree that a decision eliminating the legal right to abortion could become a dominant -- even pivotal -- issue in the 1992 presidential campaign. If the court rejects Roe any time in the next two terms, states across the country would be ensnarled in bitter debates over whether to recriminalize abortion even as the presidential race unfolds.
At best, said one senior Republican strategist in close contact with the White House, Bush might be able to argue by then that the decision is out of his hands. But at worst, other GOP analysts say, Bush could be forced to run atop a party hopelessly divided over the issue and facing intensely mobilized opposition from abortion-rights supporters. By itself that probably wouldn't be enough to topple Bush -- but, if the economy slips further, it could make him vulnerable.
It's possible that Souter, if confirmed, may join the contingent that has avoided a broad ruling on Roe, and thus delay the issue again. That's the quiet hope of those Republicans looking for signs Souter may be a Trojan Horse in reverse a cipher whose blank slate obscures not opposition but support for legalized abortion.
But if that turned out to be Souter's position -- either on legal, procedural or moral grounds -- the pressure on Bush to name an explicitly anti-abortion judge to fill the next vacancy would be overwhelming. And with two judges who support abortion rights over 80, appointments could face Bush before 1992.
Clearly abortion opponents are expecting Souter -- and any additional Bush appointments -- to bend their way. Anything less would ferociously disappoint anti-abortion activists, who feel their time has finally come. But as the precipice draws closer, voices are rising among those GOP activists urging the party to turn away from what they consider a politically suicidal and socially disruptive commitment to upending Roe -- if Souter's nomination hasn't already sealed the issue.
This reckoning is descending on unlikely shoulders. A late convert to the anti-abortion cause, a conciliator who splits the difference the way a logger splits firs, Bush may be the one to confront the final eruption of this social fissure. That would be a great irony. But the White House might be too busy putting out fires to appreciate it.
Ronald Brownstein is a national political correspondent for the C Los Angeles Times.