WASHINGTON -- Sen. Robert Dole is a fine man and will make a good president (yes, you can call that a prediction). But glimpses of how his mind works on some subjects are perplexing. There is, for example, the curious matter of his handling of the abortion plank in the Republican platform.
As everyone knows, the would-be nominee had finessed the issue, only to stomp all over his elegant creation just a couple of days later. Senator Dole at first said that the party would retain the pro-life plank it has included in every platform since 1980 but would put a statement in the preamble expressing tolerance for differing ideas. Everyone from Pat Buchanan to Ann Stone was satisfied. The great abortion rift seemed to melt away.
But then, Mr. Dole went further, denouncing pro-lifers by name and announcing that tolerance language would appear in the abortion plank itself.
Sigh. Now the politicians and tacticians are scurrying to repair the damage and devise some face-saving compromise.
That's their job. Mine is different. Something Mr. Dole said during the fracas deserves a closer look. He said that abortion is a moral issue and therefore the plank must contain a disclaimer about respecting other points of view.
Huh? What does that mean -- that, on moral matters, Republicans are willing to entertain conflicting points of view but on non-moral matters, like say, the capital-gains tax cut or the 55-mile-per-hour speed limit, they hold firm?
Shouldn't it be just the other way around?
A party platform covers a lot of ground. In 1988, the Republican Party platform set forth official positions on hundreds of issues -- jobs, the homeless, immigration, drugs, urban revitalization, guns, education, opening markets abroad, government ethics, energy, rural economic development and AIDS -- to name just a few. Some of the areas covered are more debatable than others.
You can argue pro and con about immigration, regulatory reform, workers' rights and government ethics. They are matters that can be resolved with reference to prudential judgments -- viz, is immigration helping or hurting the economy?
But moral reasoning tends to be of a different order. It relies upon fixed and immutable principles. We oppose child labor not because we think it is bad for the economy. Our view would be no different if it helped the economy. We oppose it because it is morally wrong to force children to bear the burdens of adults.
Because it is wrong
Similarly, we oppose racial discrimination because it is wrong. It is a moral issue and therefore brooks no opposition.
If the Republican Party were to insert a plank in its platform expressing repugnance at racial discrimination but allowing that since this is a moral issue, we respect those who disagree, the platform would rightly be dismissed as incoherent.
Ah, say the relativists, but who decides what those principles are? Your principles are not my principles. Your right and wrong are not mine.
But is that really true? It might have seemed that white Southerners circa 1950 and the civil-rights movement had no moral compass in common. But it wasn't so. In time, the segregationists were brought around to the view that their stand was morally wrong and the other side right.
If we ever reach the point in this country where two camps are truly without common frames of reference about moral absolutes, we will be in deep trouble. For now, the pro-life side is trying to persuade the pro-choice side that abortion is morally wrong -- morally wrong according to the same morality that teaches racism, cruelty and aggression to be wrong.
In its spring issue, the Human Life Review reprints a 1975 essay by Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits, formerly chief rabbi of the United Kingdom. He assails the notion that important moral judgments are matters of conscience. "In the Jewish view," he wrote, "the human conscience is meant to enforce laws, not to make them."
Does that mean that there is no place for pro-choice voters in the Republican Party? No. But it certainly does mean that the very last place you would put a statement expressing openness to other points of view is in the plank that expresses the party's moral aversion to abortion.
Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 7/01/96