Related Stories

 Click here for more Congressional Quarterly's in-depth political coverage.


CQ News

'Big Tent' Advocates Look Likely To Defeat Abortion Measure

By Alan Greenblatt, CQ Staff Writer

Ask members of the Republican National Committee (RNC) what they think of a procedure that opponents call "partial birth abortion," and you will get an earful of strong opinions.

"A horrible thing."

"A most inhumane thing."


"A heinous act."


"A hideous, brutal crime."

But the same members who use these words also say they will oppose a resolution that would deny party assistance to candidates who would permit the procedure.

The resolution is expected to be offered at the RNC winter meeting Jan. 15-17 at a resort near Palm Springs, Calif. But it now appears likely to fail in the resolutions committee or be voted down by the full 165-member RNC.

A congressional effort to ban the procedure has twice fallen victim to President Clinton's veto pen, most recently in October. Supporters of the ban have the votes to override the latest veto in the House, but are likely to fall short once again in the Senate.

Only a dozen Republican members of Congress -- eight in the House, and four in the Senate -- opposed the bill (HR1122) that would ban the procedure in the most recent votes on passage.

But some social-issue moderates and liberals in the party have insisted that the procedure is covered by Supreme Court rulings that protect abortion rights. Among those with this view are New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman and New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, both winners of high-profile re-election races in 1997.

Although this is a minority view in the party, a larger number of Republicans are wary of the precedent that might be established if the RNC began setting policy requirements for candidates.

In a Jan. 6 letter to RNC members, Republican Party Chairman Jim Nicholson called the procedure "indefensible," yet argued that the party could not afford to "establish a litmus test" on any particular issue.

That argument looks likely to carry the day among the voting members of the RNC, who by and large are ready to put aside their personal feelings on the issue toward the goal of broadening Republican support. (The RNC is made up of state party chairmen and one man and one woman from each of the 50 states, plus national party officers and representatives from the District of Columbia and the territories.)

"If I were a betting man, at this point I would say that the odds are on Nicholson's position," conceded Tim Lambert, the national committeeman from Texas who has been the resolution's prime sponsor.

Such an outcome would represent a personal victory for Nicholson, whose first year in office has had many critics in GOP circles. Although he wins praise for his fundraising efforts, Nicholson has suffered for his lackluster TV performances, which have translated into a perceived lack of leadership and presence.

Ron Kaufman, the national committeeman from Massachusetts, said: "This is the most visible issue that he's had to manage. To his credit, I think it's going to work out well."

Nicholson's opposition may not have been crucial to the outcome, however, as some RNC members say the Lambert resolution lacked momentum even before Nicholson came out against it. In contrast to the quadrennial platform writing exercise at national conventions, where since 1980 abortion opponents have been able to preserve a controversial plank calling for a constitutional ban on all abortions, Lambert and his allies among the major anti-abortion advocacy groups failed to lobby effectively.

"Without a major grass-roots effort, this thing could not pass," said Virginia national committeeman Morton Blackwell.

Abortion opponents within the RNC have argued that if the party holds a certain position on an issue of unusual importance, it should enforce its view with the tools at hand -- dollars.

"People send money to the national party, and they send it because they feel they know where we stand," said South Carolina national committeewoman Cindy Costa.

Costa was angered that about $760,000 of the RNC's money went to the 1997 re-election campaign of New Jersey's Whitman, who had vetoed a state ban on partial-birth abortions.

In her fall campaign, Whitman was loudly attacked for her position by Republican conservatives and third-party candidates. She wound up winning a 1-percentage-point plurality.

Prominent abortion rights opponents such as former Vice President Dan Quayle and Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., a chief sponsor of the ban, surprised some social conservatives by stumping for Whitman personally. But nothing was more galling to her critics than the RNC expenditure.

"The question here is taking other people's money and giving it to candidates like Whitman who want to keep this hideous practice legal," said Colleen Parro, director of the Republican National Coalition for Life, an anti-abortion group.

"When you see them spend googobs of money to get that one person elected, I don't agree with it," Costa said.

But at least one major donor saw it differently. Bob Hiler, national committeeman from Indiana, is part of a family that has been a major source of Republican money (Hiler gave $160,000 to the RNC in 1997 alone).

"I'm about as pro-life as anybody," Hiler said, "but I just cannot accept a situation in the Republican Party where there is a litmus test if you want to join or be a candidate.

"I respect the decisions of our national party leaders to place money where it needs to go to ensure that we win that seat."

Practical Politics

The procedure has been a source of both frustration and political momentum for opponents of abortion. Graphic descriptions in political ads and in floor speeches delivered in Congress have brought notable drops in support for abortion rights in public opinion polls. This in turn has allowed abortion rights opponents to go on the offensive politically.

A USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll in November found that just 22 percent of those surveyed thought abortion should be legal under any circumstances, down from 33 percent in February 1995. Other polls have found a concomitant drop in the number of people more broadly willing to describe themselves as "pro-choice."

"They definitely think the public relations is on their side right now," said Ann Stone, chairman of Republicans for Choice, which supports abortion rights.

Given the nearly universal rejection of partial-birth abortion among RNC members and rank-and-file Republicans, the resolution represents a classic test of the "big tent" philosophy espoused by former RNC Chairman Lee Atwater. Before his death in 1991, Atwater argued eloquently that the GOP was big enough and broad enough to contain multitudes and tolerate dissent on any given issue.

"If we pass the resolution, we would be hit again and again with the charge that we were trying to weed out of the party all pro-choice adherents," warned Dwight Sutherland, the national committeeman from Kansas.

"As a movement begins, it has a rigid, ideological thrust," said Clemson University political scientist Charles W. Dunn. "Then, as it enters the realm of practical politics, it recognizes that compromises have to be made if it is going to have success."

The idea of banning partial-birth abortions enjoys wide support -- New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a Democrat, has pleaded with Clinton to sign the ban. "I had once remarked that the procedure was too close to infanticide," Moynihan said on NBC's "Meet the Press" in March 1997.

"And now we have testimony that it is not just too close to infanticide, it is infanticide, and one would be too many."

Dunn, the co-author of a 1996 book called "The Conservative Tradition in America," suggested that, "Here's a litmus-test issue the religious right has where perhaps they can press more than on some other issues, recognizing that there's greater popular support."

Opponents of the procedure cite polls that suggest more than 75 percent of voters hold their position. But even if such polls are right, passage of the resolution might still alienate millions of voters.

"The goal of a political party is to win political power so it can implement its programs, not to win a plurality," said Bill Pascoe, political director of the American Conservative Union. "Therefore, you can't afford ideological purity like this. We're not Leninists."

Pascoe, normally an ally of anti-abortion activists, said that since there are only two broad-based parties in the United States, neither one can afford to take a one-size-fits-all approach on any issue.

"I think they have a right to pass this resolution," Pascoe said. "I just think it would be stupid politically to do it."

Pascoe, as well as numerous RNC members, feel the GOP can safely afford to repudiate individuals such as former Ku Klux Klan leader and Louisiana Republican David Duke, who has been the party nominee for senator and governor.

But many RNC members warn that if the Lambert approach were to succeed, it would balkanize the party, with resolutions flying to block funds from going to candidates who hold views outside the Republican mainstream on issues from immigration and taxes to campaign finance and the death penalty.

"The Republican Party has to grow, and it can't grow if we are going to exclude people for single issues," said Connecticut GOP Chairman Chris DePino.

Even some of those who see the issue as a winner in electoral politics believe it should be handled as a legislative initiative. "I would much rather propose and pass this law every year, and embarrass the Democrats" than support the Lambert resolution, said Mississippi GOP Chairman Mike Retzer.

Other Arenas

Some abortion opponents, emboldened by their success in the polls with the partial-birth issue, believe they can go on the offensive with the issue in many races during the 1998 cycle, no longer feeling they have to hide their light under a bushel for fear of being labeled "extremist."

"The pro-life stance is a definite plus," said Chris Watts, executive director of the Indiana Republican Party. "Around the state, we do seem to be winning the war on that issue."

Campaign for Working Families, a political action committee run by conservative activist Gary Bauer, has donated $5,000 directly to the campaign of one anti-abortion candidate in the special election to be held Jan. 13 in California's 22nd House District.

Bauer's group is also running a $100,000 issue advocacy campaign of its own, spotlighting the candidates' positions on partial birth abortion.

© 1998 Congressional Quarterly Inc. All rights reserved.
In CQ News This Week

Saturday Jan. 10, 1998

Rep. Meeks Wins Democratic Spot In Race To Fill Flake Seat
Ferraro Is Back, And So Is The Character Issue
29 House Incumbents Bolt Out Of The Starting Gate
Celebrity Lawmaker Wore Renewed Fame Lightly
No Solution In Sight As Congress Prepares To Tackle Settlement
House Democrats Face Losing Another Seat In The South
Could Gingrich Top GOP's 2000 List?
'Big Tent' Advocates Look Likely To Defeat Abortion Measure
Hill Feels The Big Clout Of Small Business
Clinton's Child Care Proposal Draws GOP Supporters And Critics

Barnes & Noble book search

Archives   |   CQ News   |   TIME On Politics   |   Feedback   |   Help

Copyright © 1998 AllPolitics All Rights Reserved.
Terms under which this information is provided to you.
Read our privacy guidelines.
Who we are.