HOUSTON -- This year's political cliche of choice from the Democrats about President Bush is that "he doesn't get it." It's an all-purpose indictment that says he doesn't understand why voters seem so dissatisfied with him or, worse, that he doesn't grasp the implications of some of the things he says.
The latest utterance to draw the comment, and not just from Democrats, is his reply in his CBS News interview Tuesday night when asked, as Vice President Dan Quayle had been asked earlier concerning his daughter, how he would react if his granddaughter came to him, told him she was pregnant and wanted to have an abortion.
The president said he would try to talk her out of it but, as Quayle said, "I'd stand by my child." So, the interviewer asked, "in the end, the decision would be hers?" Bush replied: "Well, who else's could it be?"
That is precisely the question that abortion-rights advocates have been asking in their fight to preserve the core of the Roe vs. Wade decision threatened by the conservative-oriented Supreme Court. By asking it, Bush leaves himself wide open to the same interpretation leveled against Quayle when he gave basically the same answer in a recent television interview: that a woman should be able to make the choice, but only if she is a
member of his own family.
Ever since he teamed up with Ronald Reagan on the 1980 Republican ticket, Bush has embraced Reagan's basic position against abortion, calling for repeal of Roe vs. Wade and adoption of a constitutional amendment barring it in all cases except where the life of the mother is imperiled. Even as Bush's answer to the hypothetical question about his granddaughter was being aired, the platform committee of the party convention that is to renominate him here next week was endorsing, with his approval, the retention of the party plank calling for an anti-abortion constitutional amendment.
The president has been reported to favor two other exceptions -- in the cases of rape and incest. But when a pro-choice platform member, Bobbi Breske of Delaware, sought in vain to have these two exclusions inserted, she never mentioned that Bush also supported their inclusion. If there is confusion within the GOP as to where he stands on the issue, it's not surprising, especially in light of his most recent answer about his own granddaughter.
When Bush ran against Reagan for the 1980 Republican nomination, he said he supported Roe vs. Wade and opposed a constitutional ban on abortion. When he became Reagan's running mate, he supported the amendment, but with exceptions in the cases of rape and incest. As president, he has remained in favor of the amendment, which lacks those two exceptions, and in opposition to the use of federal funds for abortion except where the life of the mother is at risk.
Mary Dent Crisp, a longtime party activist representing the National Republican Coalition for Choice at the platform deliberations here, said she thought Bush had "reacted with a lot of compassion, caring and loving and defended his granddaughter's right to choice," but that the answer conveyed "a double standard," as did Quayle's, that was "totally contradictory" to his position as it pertained to women who were not in his family. "The sad thing," she said, "is that the anti-choice people always talk in the abstract when their own family is not involved."
That view clashed with that of Wanda Franz, heading the National Right to Life Committee, who said Bush's "expression of compassion . . . is consistent both with [his] pro-life views and with the reality that abortion is legal." It "echoes the views of all pro-lifers that we reject the violence of abortion, not the people involved," she said.
Because Bush did speak with compassion about the plight in which his grandchild could find herself, his response -- and Quayle's -- will probably sit well with many American voters who would react similarly. But among the political activists to whom the legal right to choose is an all-consuming cause, the positions of Bush and Quayle will be put down not simply as hypothetical but hypocritical as well, denying for others what they would support, however reluctantly, for their own. And in this "year of the woman" in politics, that is a very awkward position to defend.