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Abortion Issue Forces GOP Soul Searching

BY Brian Caulfield

March 15-21, 1998 Issue | Posted 3/15/98 at 2:00 PM

 

Party unity or principles? Pro-life players have different priorities

NEW YORK—Where does the center of the Republican Party lie? How far to the left can politicians stand and still gain support of the party that has formed a strong constituency by stressing social conservatism and family values? How does a party member respond to the vote last January of the Republican National Committee (RNC) to continue funding candidates who support partial-birth abortion, which is in fact infanticide?

These questions have been thrust to the forefront by prominent pro-life, pro-family advocates who have expressed a growing impatience with the Party of Lincoln. With ardent prolifers such as Pennsylvania's Sen. Rick

Santorum and Rep. Henry Hyde of Illinois pleading party unity and “big tent” politics while favoring the funding of candidates who support partial-birth abortion, many worry about the soul of the party. As early Republicans rallied around the slavery issue, many modern-day GOP members appear ready to draw the line at late-term abortion and related life issues.

New Jersey Rep. Christopher Smith bemoaned that his party leadership “went back to the big tent ideas of party unity” with the partial-birth abortion candidate funding vote. But he advised pro-life Republicans to stick with the party and push for change.

A couple of visible and well-funded Republican figures outside of Congress, however, are not waiting for elected officials to take the moral lead as the midterm elections approach. Gary Bauer, president of the Family Research Council, a Washington-based conservative group, entered the political fray in a big way during a recent California congressional run-off. He aired pro-life television ads during the January primary, and poked open a GOP wound by supporting a pro-life Republican candidate over a “pro-choice” one.

Dr. James Dobson, the popular radio personality, whose Focus on the Family ministry was the parent organization of Family Research Council when Bauer took the helm of the latter in 1989, recently expressed disappointment bordering on despair regarding the direction of the GOP. He said that he and other disenchanted Republicans would consider leaving the party if a viable alternative emerged.

These independent-minded conservative leaders have plenty of recent events to mull over. Yet they and their followers are justified in wondering how truly conservative the party has been in past decades. A New York Times interview with Gerald Ford appeared in January in which the former president and House minority leader blamed an “ultra-conservative” pro-life agenda for threatening Republican chances for the White House in 2000. He stated that he and his wife, Betty, are proud to be “strongly pro-choice” and lamented the influence of pro-life “zealots” who make abortion a partisan issue.

Ronald Reagan, pro-life leaders have pointed out, supported the cause with many moving words and symbolic acts, but did little in concrete terms during his eight years as president to bring an end to abortion.

Current legislators also show chinks in their pro-life stands. Santorum has not taken back one word of his eloquent Senate floor statements on partial-birth abortion, yet he found time last year to campaign for Gov. Christine Whitman, who vetoed a bill to ban partial-birth abortion in New Jersey. Explaining his action, Santorum said that pro-life advocates dissuaded him from Whitman's campaign, but the practicalities of politics were compelling. Whitman's opponent held the same view on abortion as she, said the senator, and she had been a strong fiscal conservative in her first term as governor. A pro-life, third-party candidate will not win, Santorum added.

In response, some pro-lifers have wondered how such candidates will ever win if major party leaders refuse to support them over the long haul.

Determined to break the cycle of Republican leaders placing politics over principle, Bauer is going right to the people with a clear, uncompromising message. Considered by some observers to be the nation's most influential political conservative (Washington's neoconservative Weekly Standard recently bore the headline “Bauer Power”), he used an increasingly popular tactic—what may be called “direct-market lobby-ing”—in the California runoff last January. In doing so, he cut to the heart of the party's woes by throwing his support behind a pro-life candidate against a pro-abortion one in the Republican primary.

Through his action group, Campaign for Working Families, Bauer pumped some $100,000 into pro-life television ads, appealing directly to the voters with adorable images of newborn babies, which graphically highlighted the realities of partial-birth abortion and underlined the fundamental difference between pro-life and “pro-choice.” Bauer's candidate, Tom Bordonaro, won the primary over the hand-picked favorite of the Republican establishment, Brooks Firestone. A 38-year-old state assemblyman, Bordonaro was set for the run-off election on March 10 against the heavily favored Democrat Lois Capps, the wife of the congressman whose death late last year brought about the special election. In the three-way preliminary election in January, which served as the Republican primary (there was no Democratic opponent), Capps gained 44.9% of the votes, to Bordonaro's 29.1% and 26% for Firestone.

Assuming Bordonaro's defeat, a question arises. What did Bauer have to gain by throwing his weight and significant funds behind a likely loser?

Skeptics will see personal political ambitions, perhaps a presidential run, for Bauer, who was undersecretary of education and later chief domestic-policy adviser for Reagan. After all, Bauer made a big splash in a small congressional pond that was highly visible for the simple reason that it was the only national race at the time.

Others, while not necessarily discounting political ambitions for Bauer, will see a moral crusader of integrity investing money in a visible arena to call attention to pro-life issues and show the clear moral schism within the Republican Party. His ads by all accounts did win votes for his candidate, and caused establishment Republicans to come running to Bordonaro's side after the primary to seize the agenda in his campaign against Capps.

Amid Planned Parenthood-type ads designed to discount both Bauer and Bordonaro, mainstream Republicans spent about $400,000 for ads seeking to reposition Bordonaro away from abortion and toward the “real” issues of taxes and spending. Such tactics do not appear to present the party unity that GOP pro-life and pro-abortion members are touting as paramount.

Lincoln, the first Republican president and no stranger to the Bible, said that a house divided against itself cannot stand. Bauer and Dobson are notable in that they do not shy from exposing the party's present fissures.

The conservative, moral mind set also may be gleaned from Dobson's bluntly expressed disappointment, bordering on despair, about the party's direction—especially in the RNC's vote to continue funding candidates who favor keeping legal a form of infanticide. He said that he would consider leaving the Republicans for an independent party, one that would not play politics and plead “big tent” on abortion and family issues.

Between Dobson's radio audience and Bauer's claim of 400,000 donors, the two could flex political muscle within the party in the forthcoming mid-term elections for the House of Representatives and a third of the Senate. Moral persuasion, when taken on a wide public plane, is unavoidably political, since moral standards are fundamental to a polity—a people living under a rule for the common good.

In this light, Bauer's venture into “direct-market lobbying” on TV in the California race can be seen as a testing of the temper of the polity for November. Win or lose with Bordonaro, his Family Research Council gained valuable information and experience in a limited campaign. He will no doubt bring up partial-birth abortion and the full family agenda (with a larger advertising budget) while backing candidates in the fall.

Brian Caulfield writes from New York.

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