Abortion as an issue is far more painful for Republicans than for Democrats. It goes directly to the heart of the philosophical divide within the conservative movement that seized control of the GOP in 1964 and has dominated American politics ever since. The split is between libertarians whose primary aim is to limit government interference in the great American game of making money and moralists eager to use government power to safeguard the rights of the unborn.
The right-wing tide initiated by Barry Goldwater 28 years ago was essentially libertarian, and it is no surprise to hear the 1964 GOP standard-bearer warn that if his party sticks to the strict anti-abortion plank advocated by President Bush the Republican National Convention in Houston next week "will go down in shambles and so will the election."
Actually, a similar plank did not defeat Mr. Bush four years ago. The real difference this time is the sad state of the economy, which may be one reason GOP party managers tend to dismiss Mr. Goldwater as an icon turned anachronism. But the more significant reason is that the libertarians lost out to the moralists sometime in the late 1970s, as witness Mr. Bush's switch on abortion when he joined the Reagan ticket. Libertarians got supply-side economics, to be sure, but the price was their party's advocacy of government diktat in the very personal business of having a child.
Two years ago, GOP consultant Roger Stone said "the party has to recognize that our political principles as Republicans require us to be pro-choice but our moral principles. . . require us to be pro-life." But at this moment, something else has come into play -- something that causes party pragmatists to wish the whole abortion question would vanish. That something is the lead Democratic nominee Bill Clinton now holds in opinion polls that also strongly indicate the majority of American voters favor the retention of abortion rights. Republicans lost statewide races in Virginia and New Jersey in recent elections primarily because they lost the support of women voters who might otherwise have sided with the GOP. Party pragmatists fear the same thing could happen nationally this year.
As a consequence, there is one Republican group that would prefer to see the whole topic of abortion dropped from the GOP platform and another group of more vocal dissidents who want their party to welcome "big tent" diversity on this emotional issue. Neither is likely to change the anti-abortion plank already in the platform committee draft. Mr. Bush cannot dare to offend ** conservative moralists by switching on this issue since he has already offended conservative libertarians by reneging on his no-new-taxes pledge. The Republican Party, however, would be well served if it allowed the kind of vigorous debate on abortion that the pro-choice Democrats refused to countenance in New York last month.