WASHINGTON -- Maybe the Clinton White House stumbled unintentionally into an abortion debate with the Republicans on the nomination of Dr. Henry W. Foster Jr. to be surgeon general. But maybe it's not the worst thing that could happen to a president in political trouble.
Some Democrats like Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Barbara A. Mikulski are declaring the White House the gang that can't shoot straight for nominating an obstetrician-gynecologist who makes an easy target for abortion foes. Having to confront the issue, however, could also be a headache for a Republican Party increasingly torn over abortion.
In all the heat generated by discussion of the issue and shootings at abortion clinics, public opinion in the country remains solidly for legal abortion.
A CBS News poll last month found that only one in five respondents now wants abortion outlawed. President Clinton's support for abortions that are "legal, safe and rare" obviously squares with that polling evidence. So the apparent White House decision to stand firmly behind the Foster nomination is not as foolhardy as it may appear.
For one thing, doing so portrays Clinton for once as decisive and steadfast, a posture too seldom conveyed since taking office as he has struggled to establish an image of strong leadership.
At the same time, casting the Republican opposition as right-wing extremism at work spotlights internal divisions within the GOP over abortion that by 1996 could be a serious detriment to the party's presidential nominee.
While the White House was circling the wagons around Foster over the weekend, prominent Republicans were revisiting, at the Conservative Political Action Conference, their commitment to the anti-abortion position that was so combustible at their 1992 convention in Houston.
Ralph Reed, executive director of the Christian Coalition, served notice that evangelicals and Catholics would boycott any Republican ticket that bore a presidential or vice-presidential nominee who supported abortion rights.
And prospective 1996 candidate Patrick J. Buchanan defended retention of the anti-abortion plank in the party's 1996 platform. "Anyone who tries to rip that plank out of the platform will have to come over Pat Buchanan," said the party's Mr. Tough Guy to thunderous applause.
Reed's warning particularly has already caused some of the other 1996 hopefuls to squirm. Sen. Phil Gramm, about as strong against abortion as anyone could be, sidestepped furiously on David Brinkley's ABC interview show Sunday when asked point-blank if he would reject as a running mate anyone who supported abortion rights. "I'm not going to start setting out parameters as to what one item I might exclude somebody on," he said.
The Foster nomination should not have much at all to do with the 1996 presidential picture. But it has put on the front burner the issue of abortion that most of the 1996 Republican aspirants would prefer to avoid, clearly excepting Buchanan who sees it as xTC a vote-getter for him, at least in the party.
As long as the Foster nomination remains before the Senate, and Republican leaders like Gramm continue to fight it, the GOP will be putting a stern anti-abortion face on the party that does not square with how the polls say Americans feel about the issue. That suits the White House fine, as Vice President Al Gore indicated in Nashville, Tenn., yesterday by declaring, at Foster's side: "We are not going to let the extremists defeat this man."
It's small wonder that the White House now wants the argument over Foster to be waged not in terms of White House incompetence in screening him but rather of the legality of his behavior as a medical man and his record as a crusader against teen-age pregnancy, under partisan attacks by Republican fanatics.
It appears to have dawned on the White House that in Henry Foster they have no back-alley abortionist but a specialist in the birth process who can be defended on the merits of his career, and who gives Clinton a very strong basis for taking the stand on abortion that he has long vowed to be his.
If, in doing so, the president can strengthen his own unsteady leadership image, and point up Republican political discomfort with the issue, so much the better. But he'd better not cave in on this one, or no amount of GOP division on abortion is likely to help him by 1996.