Is the White House deliberately sending mixed messages on abortion?
After hammering down a staunchly anti-abortion plank in their party platform, GOP leaders have awakened the last few days to find Barbara Bush questioning their work and the President himself saying he would support a grandchild who opted to have an abortion.
The President's remarks echoed Vice President Dan Quayle's recent comment that he would support his daughter if she chose to have an abortion--an option the GOP platform would deny her. And on Friday, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said Bush, while affirming his support for the platform, had no objections to his wife's call for the document to remain neutral on abortion.
Asked in Santa Monica on Friday about this flurry of head-turning remarks from the White House, Democratic presidential nominee Bill Clinton said: "I don't know whether they're just compelled to say what they really believe or if they're trying to have it both ways."
Publicly and privately, White House officials insist there is no strategy to send a subliminal message of tolerance on the abortion issue. "Do not read tons into this," said Torie Clarke, the Bush campaign's press secretary.
But Democrats and other political observers maintain that the clearly conflicting signals symbolize the difficulties facing Bush as he tries to hold together a coalition whose glue--economic prosperity--has dissolved. In the past few weeks, the GOP has gone through somewhat similar, if less tortured, contortions on gay rights and the environment--two other issues that divide their base.
"As a party we have not dealt with the fact that our coalition is under tremendous stress," said GOP pollster Bill McInturff.
Like all successful national coalitions, the GOP majority in the 1980s always embodied, and transcended, contradictions. In 1988, Bush--like Ronald Reagan before him--attracted socially tolerant young voters even while emphasizing conservative social positions--such as opposition to abortion--aimed at religious conservatives and older ethnic Democrats, primarily in the urban Northeast.
Although uncomfortable with such views, younger and suburban voters typically sided with the GOP in the belief that Republicans were most likely to produce prosperity, analysts say. "A little disposable income will cover up a lot of stuff," says Democratic strategist Bill Carrick.
But with dissatisfaction over Bush's economic performance now widespread, the cultural contradictions are surfacing. Heading into next week's GOP convention, both groups--the older so-called "Reagan Democrats" and the younger suburbanites--are restive, polls indicate.
In a Gallup Organization survey completed earlier this week, Clinton led Bush 57% to 31% among voters under 34 years old--making that the Democrats' strongest age group.
At the same time, polls suggest that the Reagan Democrats--who are heavily blue-collar and largely Roman Catholic--are moving back to the party of their parents. Surveying Reagan Democrats in the key swing states of Michigan, Ohio and Illinois, Michigan-based Democratic pollster Ed Sarpolus found Clinton leading Bush in early August by a whopping 72% to 16%.
Until his remarks on abortion in an NBC interview earlier this week, Bush had worked harder since the Democratic Convention to improve his standing among socially conservative voters than to recapture independents, many analysts in both parties agree.
In the last month Bush repeatedly emphasized issues believed to be of particular concern to urban Catholics, the quintessential Reagan Democrats. For instance, in late July he visited a Catholic high school in Philadelphia to pitch his plan to provide government money to help parents send their children to private schools, including religious schools.
In early August, speaking to the Knights of Columbus convention in New York, Bush implicitly criticized Clinton for supporting the distribution of condoms in schools, attacked the Democrats' welfare reform proposals as likely to breed further dependency, declared again his support for school prayer and affirmed in the strongest possible terms his opposition to abortion.
Noting that he has vetoed seven bills seeking to loosen federal restrictions on abortion funding or counseling, Bush declared: "I promise you again today, no matter the political price . . . I am going to stand on my conscience and let my conscience be my guide when it comes to matters of life."
Democrats say that despite such efforts, they see no sign that Bush can recapture the wayward Reagan Democrats by stressing social issues.
"The family values today for Reagan Democrats is keeping the family together through keeping food on the table, and having their kids go to college so they can do better than their parents did," says Sarpolus.