Republicans are concerned that Pat Buchanan's bolt from the Grand Old Party might prevent a Republican from winning the presidency in 2000. Polls give Buchanan in a three-way race only about 6% of the total vote — coming mostly from Republican ranks — but this could be enough to throw the election to an Al Gore or a Bill Bradley.
A surefire antidote to any such “Buchanan effect” is readily available, however, and exists for the taking right now. Unfortunately, though, neither Republican Party officials, nor the high-paid experts who manage the campaigns for some of the candidates, seem yet to have tumbled to the obvious solution to the problem posed by a Buchanan defection. Yet this solution is a transparently simple one.
It is this: The Republican Party (or the candidates) should declare strong and unqualified adherence to, and determination finally to try to do something serious about, a plank that has been in the Republican Party platform since 1980.
The platform plank in question is, of course, the one which puts the Republican Party behind the enactment of a Human Life Amendment. This would guarantee children not yet born the equal protection of the laws which the Fifth and 14th Amendments to the Constitution are already supposed to ensure. It would also mean a repeal of the deeply flawed 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision which legalized abortion in the United States.
Pro-life voters, who now constitute a significant portion of the Republican base, are not convinced that the party is serious in its pro-life stand. If they were, few of them would ever follow Buchanan into the Reform Party merely to register what everybody understands would be nothing but a conservative protest vote (since Buchanan cannot possibly win). The Reform Party, whose nomination he is now officially seeking, is itself nothing but a vehicle to register protest votes against “the system"; even those who vote Reform do not expect victory. They simply want to “protest.”
Many pro-life voters think they have more to protest than most other folks. The Republican Party courts their votes but continues to shrink from even mentioning their cause unless it seems absolutely necessary politically (usually when talking directly to the pro-lifers themselves). Buchanan, like some of the other minor candidates, has attracted support from many pro-life voters simply by being willing to bring up and seriously debate the abortion issue.
But the famous Buchanan Brigades would probably break up very quickly if there were no longer any perceived need for pro-lifers to register protest votes — if the Republican Party itself showed in more tangible ways that it really was committed to what it says in words it is committed to. An honest Republican declaration that it really does take its own platform seriously — along with a more credible pledge that it really does intend to work harder to restore the right to life to the unborn — could deal something close to a death blow to the threat posed by a third-party Buchanan candidacy.
Such a Republican move would have the further merit of being something the party has officially been committed to for nearly two decades anyway. As such, it should not be unduly upsetting to any of the party's other constituencies (which presumably have long since had to come to terms with the fact that the Republican Party goes on officially claiming to be “the pro-life party”).
The same logic applies to the various Republican candidates. All of them without exception have declared themselves to be “pro-life,” of course — a fact which no doubt accurately reflects the reality of what the party's current base consists of. All three of the front-runners, though — George W. Bush, John McCain, Steve Forbes and, alas, Elizabeth Dole, who has already dropped out of the race — have badly bungled their handling of the abortion issue. But why should it be a liability for a candidate to be favor of what the party itself has officially favored since 1980?
Why should it be so hard for candidates supposedly in favor of strict constructionism to state plainly that the Constitution is necessarily undermined when Supreme Court decisions deny the equal protection of the laws to whole classes of people? It is a weak cop-out to argue that there is no national consensus for the repeal of Roe v. Wade; it is the task of serious political leadership to create the consensus necessary for the continued integrity of our democratic and constitutional system.
If Republicans really want to neutralize the Buchanan effect, they only have to show in a few more concrete ways that they really are pro-life.
Kenneth D. Whitehead was a senior official in the Reagan administration.