Abortion threatens disaster for Republicans

The party is tearing itself apart over social issues before its convention, writes Rupert Cornwell

Washington - For Republicans, it is what Vietnam was for Democrats, what nuclear disarmament used to be for Labour, and what Europe is for the modern Tories. Three months before the San Diego nominating convention, an eternal doctrinal argument over abortion is once more tearing the party asunder.

In 1993, when the divisions at the Houston convention that poisoned the re-election bid of George Bush were still fresh in the memory, the Republican establishment vowed to make peace over abortion. Never again would strident conservatives be given such free rein; agreement to disagree was the new watchword and the party would genuinely become the "broad tent" it claimed to be.

Instead, the opposite has happened. Pat Buchanan, the dark crusader of Houston, will be back in San Diego with more influence than ever, warning that any softening of official Republican policy against abortion could drive him from its ranks, causing a split which would doom the presumptive nominee, Bob Dole, as surely as Mr Bush was doomed four years ago. Disgusted at the spectacle which may lie ahead, not a few Republicans are already making travel plans to be anywhere but San Diego at the appointed hour in August.

But this time the Republican pro-choice lobby is not prepared to listen to Mr Buchanan in the numbed and appalled semi-silence of 1992. "Walk away from (the rigid anti-abortion stance) and walk away from me," the former commentator said this week. But an assembly of party heavyweights, led by a coalition of dozens of Congressmen, and four of the best-known Republican governors - Pete Wilson of California, George Pataki of New York, Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey and William Weld of Massachusetts - are ready to call Mr Buchanan's bluff.

The immediate battle surrounds the abortion plank in the party platform, unchanged since 1976, that "the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed" and thus committing Republicans to a constitutional amendment prohibiting abortion completely.

Unfortunately, not just a majority of the country (70 per cent at the last count) opposes so rigid a formulation but a clear majority of registered Republican voters as well. Logically, everything dictates the party moves with the times. But in the politics of abortion here, the obvious rarely prevails.

Daily, sniping mounts and disarray grows. Senator Alfonse D'Amato, head of the Republican Steering Committee, whose conservative credentials are otherwise impeccable, has branded Mr Buchanan a "philosophical ayatollah." The Buchanan camp, however, insists that if Mr Dole picks Colin Powell or any other pro-choice Republican as his vice-presidential running-mate, it will put forward a rival candidate from the floor.

Every attempt at compromise has failed, even one by Ralph Reed, director of the adamantly pro-life Christian Coalition and prime spokesman of the religious right. Perhaps, Mr Reed said this month, the platform's language might be modified to retain an uncompromising anti-abortion flavour, but dropping the explicit demand for a constitutional amendment. But Mr Buchanan was furious, Mr Dole said nothing, and within 24 hours Mr Reed had swallowed his words. Former Vice-President Dan Quayle, the original Republican "family values" champion, has also called for a truce, but to no avail.

And even the party's one recent tactical success on abortion - passage by Congress of a bill outlawing certain late-term or "partial birth" abortions which was vetoed by President Bill Clinton - has only succeeded in laying the rift bare anew.

True, Catholic voters will have been shaken by the stinging condemnation from every American cardinal and the Pope in person. But Ms Whitman disagreed, supporting Mr Clinton's action and pointing out the procedure in question was exceptionally rare, used only when the mother would otherwise die. Her stand cost her the post of deputy head of the convention platform committee, to be chaired by Congressman Henry Hyde of Illinois, one of the fiercest pro-life advocates in the party.

In fact, among voters for whom a party's policy on abortion is a make- or-break issue, the Republicans' rigid stance attracts more supporters than the solidly pro-choice platform of the Democrats. But the more subtle damage is immense.

Mr Dole's feeble gifts as an orator and insistence on running his campaign from the Senate floor (instead of taking his message out into the country) are certainly reasons for his dismal poll showing. But nothing does more to cement the party's image of inflexibility and intolerance than the abortion issue.

A survey yesterday showed Mr Clinton retaining a lead over Mr Dole of 20 per cent, thanks largely to his overwhelming backing among women, and a surge of support among suburban voters, both blue-collar "Reagan Democrats" and affluent professionals. These latter especially should be a bedrock Republican constituency. Instead, they are scared off by the party's obsessive conservatism on social issues - first and foremost abortion. Conceivably, reality will yet intrude in the three months before San Diego: as the columnist Richard Benedetto recently observed in USA Today, "Political parties are secular institutions not bound by centuries of dogma and tradition. To expect them to adhere to rigid ideology in the face of evolving public opinion is to eventually render them extinct."

A point however as yet untaken by Pat Buchanan.

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