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Losing While Winning: the Abortion Albatross : Politics: Republican strategists are beginning to realize that efforts to overturn Roe vs. Wade are a form of political Russian roulette.

August 05, 1990|Ronald Brownstein | Ronald Brownstein is a national political correspondent for The Times

The only group in Washington more concerned than abortion-rights activists about President George Bush's nomination of David H. Souter to the Supreme Court are the people who make their living electing Republicans to office.

Seared by the furor over last year's Webster decision, which merely gave states additional latitude to regulate abortion, few ranking Republican operatives still want the Supreme Court to overturn Roe vs. Wade, the landmark decision guaranteeing a woman's right to abortion.

But no one knows how to extricate the party from its commitment to do just that.

Among Republican strategists there is widespread--if still largely private--agreement that a decision undermining Roe could rip open the GOP coalition. "I don't think any professional in the party wants to see Roe overturned," said Republican consultant Roger J. Stone. "In the post-Webster environment, you could peel off young people, suburbanites, women and Jews--I don't see any anxiousness in our party to do that."

Until the Webster decision, most Republicans--whatever their feelings on the issue's morality--considered opposition to abortion an electoral plus. It allowed the GOP to crystallize the enthusiasm of anti-abortion forces and conservative evangelicals who were surging into politics on the galvanizing conviction that America had lost its moral bearings. And, party strategists felt, the anti-abortion position cost them little with voters who disagreed--as long as the courts did nothing to restrict abortion rights.

"It was easy to say in our platform Roe should be overturned when there was no prospect of doing that," said Stone.

That was a shrewd, if cynical, calculation. The vast majority of Americans vote not on abstract ideology but tangible reality. For abortion opponents, the post-Roe world of 1.5 million annual legal abortions was distressingly tangible. For abortion-rights supporters, by contrast, the GOP's rhetoric was only an abstraction that in no way diminished their access to abortion. Many Republicans truly embraced the anti-abortion cause; but others less sympathetic understood that as long as the GOP failed to implement its restrictive agenda, it could enjoy the best of both worlds.

Implicitly recognizing that dynamic, the Reagan White House never seriously pushed an constitutional amendment to ban abortion. Bush has shown even less interest in a frontal legislative assault.

But since 1980, the GOP platform has called for appointment of judges "who respect . . . the sanctity of innocent human life." That commitment has conscripted the GOP into a decade-long game of political Russian roulette. Each time a vacancy opened on the Supreme Court, the Reagan White House put a bullet in another chamber, waited for a case challenging Roe to come before the justices, pulled the trigger--and held its breath.

So far the cylinder has always come up empty, as the court refused to mount a direct challenge to the legal right to abortion.

But with four firm anti-Roe votes in place, Souter's nomination could tip the odds--and force the GOP at last to redeem its long-standing debt to the anti-abortion forces. "This was a deal with the devil where we thought we would never have to pay the piper," said one nervous Republican consultant.

The conundrum facing the GOP is that while most strategists believe an adamant anti-abortion position is a losing hand over the long term, the public and personal commitments of many party leaders to the cause are too deep to easily shed.

Though Republican National Committee Chairman Lee Atwater has spoken of making the party a "big tent" on the issue, any White House move that diminishes the party's official support for the anti-abortion cause would set off internal civil war. "There is no graceful way for the party to remove itself from the commitments it has made on this issue, especially since 1980," said Bill Price, president of Texans United for Life, a leading anti-abortion group.

Many Republican strategists consider the Souter nomination a masterstroke because his thin record on abortion sustains the hope of delaying a confrontation on the issue at least through the November elections.

But those contests are only the first stage of an extended political process whose stakes rise at each turn. In political terms, the impact of the Souter nomination hearings on this fall's elections are dwarfed by the potential fallout in 1992, if Souter wins confirmation and creates a majority for reversing the Roe vs. Wade decision itself.

Analysts in both parties agree that a decision eliminating the legal right to abortion could become a dominant--even pivotal--issue in the 1992 presidential campaign. If the court rejects Roe any time in the next two terms, states across the country would be ensnarled in bitter debates over whether to recriminalize abortion even as the presidential race unfolds.

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