WASHINGTON -- If hypocrisy were a commodity that could be packaged, you could argue that the Senate cornered the market in the debate over the nomination of Dr. Henry W. Foster Jr. to be surgeon general.
The Republican insistence that the procedural roadblock they built against his confirmation was based on his qualifications rather than the abortion issue and politics was a joke. As Sen. Jim Exon, a Nebraska Democrat, put it in the extravagant language used so often in the Senate, Foster was being "crucified on the altar of presidential politics, pure and simple."
The protagonist in the drama all along has been Republican Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, who felt a compelling need to demonstrate his bona fides on the abortion issue to the cultural conservatives on the far right of his party. He insisted from the outset he would filibuster to prevent Foster's confirmation.
But Gramm alone doesn't have the stature among his colleagues -- let alone their affection -- to have sustained a filibuster. So the key was the decision by Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole to prove his commitment against abortion rights was equally undiluted. Dole enjoys both the respect and affection of most of his fellow Republicans.
It was one of a series of issues on which Gramm, despite a weak performance in the opinion polls, has been dragging Dole further to the right as they position themselves for the coming confrontations in the Iowa precinct caucuses and the New Hampshire primary.
But the Republicans are not likely to escape without paying some price for their display of dedication to the anti-abortion cause.
For one thing, it is obvious that Foster himself impressed many Republicans as well as Democrats with his performance during the confirmation hearings. Once they were held, there never was any serious doubt about there being a majority in the Senate to confirm.
Indeed, Foster was impressive enough to take President Clinton off the hook politically for the original clumsiness by the White House in the handling of the nomination. When the president responded to the Senate by saying, "What's fair is fair, and he deserves a vote up or down," he could be reasonably confident most Americans would agree.
The Foster controversy also gave the president a chance he needed to demonstrate to fellow Democrats in Congress that he would stand by a controversial nominee in the face of long odds. That display of political nerve was especially important to black Democratic leaders who have continued to resent the alacrity with which Clinton abandoned Lani Guinier, his nominee to head the Justice Department's civil rights division.
But the most significant political result of the confrontation over Foster in the Senate is the way it has pulled the abortion issue back to the forefront of the debate among Republicans.
For the Republicans, there seems to be no way out of the abortion thicket. On the one hand, as Dole and Gramm are proving in spades, the religious right of the party is influential enough to demand commitment against abortion rights as a basic credential for a 1996 nominee.
On the other, there are many mainstream Republicans who either disagree on abortion rights or don't want to see so-called family values issues playing a controlling role in the debate over the presidential nomination. For these Republicans, the memories of the Houston convention are vivid and in many cases determinative of their leanings.
There are, for example, several prominent Republicans in New Hampshire who intend to support Gov. Pete Wilson of California because he supports abortion rights.
Party leaders have been hoping ever since 1992 that the whole abortion issue could be put to the side in 1996. Some even have been so bold as to suggest the question should be left out of the platform when it is adopted at San Diego next summer.
But the influence of the Christian Coalition and allied groups has been shown once again in the Senate debate over Foster. The notion that the Nashville physician was not qualified for a largely symbolic position as surgeon general lost whatever credibility it might have had when it became clear there was a Senate majority for confirmation.
If the cultural conservatives are going to make such a cause celebre out of a nomination, they can hardly be expected to remain silent on the party platform. For Clinton, that can only be good news.