Political Hay

A More Perfect Union

Newsweek's official take notwithstanding, abortion did play a central role in the past election and will continue to do so in future elections.

By 11.21.08

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With the first wave of "what should conservatives do next?" essays out of the way, climbing routes up the Cliffs of Insanity have closed for the season while Rodents of Unusual Size plead with their cousins in Congress for bailout money. Those of us who wade through commentary can now follow the example of beachcombing birds, and my own flock still finds good hunting in the tide pools to the right of the Ronald Reagan Memorial Lifeguard Station.

For every Newsweek reporter who wondered why there was no "central debate" over abortion in the presidential campaign, thousands of other people saw that debate spotlighted more glaringly than ever before in the warp and woof of the rival tickets, with a pair of pro-life candidates facing off against their decidedly ambivalent counterparts.

Like other conservative bloggers, the winsome "Bookworm" knows that the biggest fault line in our society runs through Roe v. Wade. She recently posted an essay about how to heal the rift between pro-life conservatives and those who think abortion looms too large in American politics.

Newsweek-level campaign analysis might suggest that abortion came up only three times (in Obama's pledge to approve the "Freedom of Choice" act, in the "pay grade" answer he gave Rick Warren at the Saddleback Civil Forum, and in the last of the debates), but all three of those instances combined with the well-known positions of the people running for office to reverberate through wide swaths of the American electorate.

One wonders how Newsweek would explain the name recognition that little Trig Palin now enjoys. Or, to put this another way, had abortion not been a significant campaign issue, the endorsement of Obama by Catholic law professor Doug Kmiec would not have made the splash it did. Instead, Kmiec abandoned past service in Republican administrations to parlay off-the-scale approval ratings from Planned Parenthood for Obama into a cottage industry, defending the idea that electing a president who has never supported even modest restrictions on abortion rights would somehow reduce the level of abortions nationwide. (With arrogance masquerading as magnanimity, Kmiec now says he would change his mind if the Pope personally corrected him.)

The preeminent position of legalized abortion in any catalog of national blemishes cannot be denied. In James M. Kushiner's angry summary, "Roe v. Wade, like Dred Scott, and slavery, is a contradicting of the constitution of the organism in which it thrives." Kushiner is right and Kmiec is wrong, which is why I question the practicality of federalist solutions to the rift in conservatism.

Bookworm proposes a neo-libertarian approach to rebuilding the Republican brand, with local governments doing a lot more, national government doing a lot less, and social issues quarantined because they play out on at least fifty small stages rather than on one large one.

Another favorite blogger put the challenge similarly: "Conservatives would do well to frame the debate in a way that both educates the public and focuses on what Congress and the President actually do," she wrote, in the apparent hope that with the federal government "out of the business of legislating personal and sexual morality," conservatives can argue questions about abortion and gay marriage as "freedom issues" while holding fast against the kind of one-size-fits-all thinking that looks to the Supreme Court for social policy.

But emphasis on smaller government will not by itself resolve the tension between militant and conciliatory wings of the conservative movement, not with abortion enshrined as the status quo in too many precincts and a self-consciously progressive administration coming to power. Another commentator has it more nearly right, I think, in ignoring intramural differences to spotlight people who are not socially conservative themselves, but trust the rest of us to keep the home fires burning.

We live in an "ambiguously Christian Babylon" (the phrase comes from Fr. Richard John Neuhaus), so trying to stifle or reframe abortion talk amounts to a dereliction of duty. It was not pro-life activism that took abortion to the Supreme Court, or convinced a majority of the justices to look more to King Herod than to Pontius Pilate for precedent in deciding Roe v. Wade.

Apart from its moral weight, the pro-life point of view also serves as a useful proxy for other conservative positions, winning allies of the kind who say things like "Look, if I were playing the Wishing Game, I might suggest that conservative judges give a pass to Roe v. Wade (just to not upset the political applecart) while ruling conservatively on every other issue. But I'm not playing the Wishing Game. In reality, judges who favor Roe v. Wade favor just about every other example of liberal judicial legislating, and judges who are against Roe v. Wade are against every other example of liberal judicial legislating."

There is more than a hint of truth in that observation. It should also be noted that if reframing arguments is a prerequisite for conservative victory in subsequent elections, then reframing ought to proceed on our own terms rather than those of the progressive Left. We could start by arguing that the protection of human life at its most vulnerable is never a matter of "legislating morality," because the state has no business mandating good behavior, but compelling reasons to curb suicidal behavior.

Anyone who needs a refresher on the difference between incentives and disincentives might look to the Bill of Rights, where imperatives ("shall make no law," "shall not be infringed," "shall not be construed to deny or disparage") function more like guardrails than like harnesses. Surely Sarah from Alaska is not the only conservative who understands that.

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About the Author

Patrick O'Hannigan is a writer in North Carolina.