A Pro-Choice GOP?


Hadley Arkes, on the prospect of a Giuliani nomination:

... there is in his campaign a sobering truth that cannot be evaded: The nomination and election of Rudy Giuliani would mark the end of the Republican party as the pro-life party in our politics. And that would be the case regardless of whether pro-lifers respond to his nomination by refusing to vote for Giuliani, forming a third party, or folding themselves into a coalition that succeeds in electing Giuliani.

... What is engaged here is a truth about the nature of political parties that has gone remarkably unappreciated: Parties have the means of changing their own constituencies or their composition. By altering their appeals, they drive some groups out and bring others in. If a Republican party, reconstituted in this way, manages to win, the Republican establishment will readily draw the lesson that they can win convincingly without pro-lifers and their bundle of causes: the destruction of embryos in research, assisted suicide, the resistance to same-sex marriage. Indeed, a Republican party shorn of those people and their baggage may seem to offer a stronger, more durable majority than the party that eked out victories by narrow margins in 2000 and 2004.

Pro-life voters may subordinate their concerns and join the new coalition, but the lesson extracted will be the same … for all practical purposes, nearly any interest will trump the interests of the pro-life community.

Arkes' mordant analysis calls to mind the WSJ article that prompted my back-and-forth with Larison over the GOP and Roe. To highlight the shifting demographics of the two parties, the Journal featured Angela Williams, a Hispanic union member who makes $39,000 a year and votes Republican because she's pro-life, alongside Jim Kelley, a private-equity big shot who leans Democratic in part because he doesn't like the GOP's focus on the social issues. This juxtaposition prompted Matt Continetti to write: "So far the GOP hasn't come up with a reformist agenda to cater to voters like Williams. They may want to do so before Election Day 2008." Which of course is one of my hobby horses - but let's play devil's advocate for a moment, and imagine a Republican that takes regaining the Jack Kelleys of the world as its principle goal, rather than expanding its support among the Angela Williamses. Is such a GOP imaginable? More importantly, would such a GOP, to borrow Arkes’ words, “offer a stronger, more durable majority” than the current Republican incarnation?

The argument in favor might go something like this: The socially-liberal upper-middle class is large and growing larger, and the GOP, because of its business-class associations, is better positioned to make inroads among these nouveau Rockefeller Republicans than among the socially-conservative, downscale Hispanic voters it will otherwise need to build a majority over the next few decades. Moreover, as long as the party remains mildly socially-conservative, most pro-lifers won’t have anywhere else to go: They won’t turn out in the same numbers, sure, and some of them will vote for Democrats – particularly working-class Catholics in states like Ohio – but national security and the promise of conservative judges (which is what the business interests want too, after all) will be sufficient to keep a lot of social conservatives pulling the lever for the GOP. And what losses there are will be more than made up for with gains in the socially-liberal suburbs, which will enable Republicans to hold vulnerable states like Virginia and Florida and become competitive again in the northeast and the West Coast.

It goes without saying, I’m sure, that I don’t find this scenario particularly plausible, not least because most of the northeastern and West Coast suburbanites the GOP has lost aren’t just social liberals – they’ve become liberals, flat-out, as issues like crime and taxes have lost their salience and the Democratic Party has moved to the middle on economics. But I think it’s even less plausible now than it was a few years back – and paradoxically, it’s precisely the developments that have elevated the pro-choice Giuliani to the front-runner’s position that make it more implausible than ever.

In the period between 9/11 and the decline of the U.S. fortunes in Iraq, it was possible to imagine a scenario in which a successfully-prosecuted war on terror became a realigning issue, delivering the GOP a 60 percent majority and branding the Democratic Party as the peace party (and not in a good way) for a generation. All sorts of things might have followed under this scenario, but one possibility is suggested by the Brooks-Kristol notion of a McCain-Lieberman ticket. That pairing little sense now, I think, but in the context of a successful Iraq invasion – followed by cries of “on to Tehran” and “on to Damascus” – it isn’t so outlandish to imagine a GOP that absorbed a lot of Lieberman-style socially-liberal, fiscally-moderate hawks (call it the Dennis Miller vote) and in the process became large enough to make the pro-life vote much less crucial to its fortunes. In the election of 2008, with democracy successfully extended to Iran and Syria, al Qaeda broken and Osama executed, and our rivals in Europe, Russia and China cowed, this McCain-Lieberman GOP might have sat athwart a new political center, with a weakened, much more left-wing Democratic Party to one side and perhaps a disgruntled right-wing rump to the other. The result could have been exactly what Arkes fears: The end, for a time at least, of the pro-life movement as a significant force in American politics.

Instead, the reverse happened: Instead of the war gaining votes for the GOP, it lost them; instead of expanding the party, it shrank it. This state of affairs has given us the bizarre phenomenon of social conservatives embracing Giuliani, following a line of thinking that Arkes sums up thus:

The pro-life movement has become bound up inescapably with the fate of the Republican party ... but the White House cannot be preserved for the Republicans—and the pro-life movement—without solving the problem of the war in Iraq. To this task Giuliani brings no military credentials, but he seems to have the tenacity to see the war through to victory and to bring the Republicans through as a party that need not apologize for a war that was undertaken for good reasons. Even the pro-lifers may recognize then that the war claims a certain precedence or preeminence in the issues now pressing. The pro-life issue may have to be submerged at this moment as a matter of high strategy, for the interests of the country and for the survival of the Republican party as the pro-life party.

I will leave it to my liberal colleagues to point out the “Green Lantern” quality of the bolded passage, and accept this line of reasoning as one of the givens of this primary season. But the reality it’s responding to seems deeply uncongenial to any attempt to expand the GOP in a fashion that would render the pro-life vote irrelevant. Rudy is running with national security as the main rationale for his candidacy, but because the war in Iraq is so unpopular, he cannot use national security to realign the parties so that his own hawkish, socially-liberal politics occupy the political center. Instead, the best he can hope for is a narrow victory over a strong Democratic Party, and to win a narrow victory he will require at least a moderately-impressive turnout from social conservatives. They fear that the GOP can’t win without him, but his campaign – whatever its fantasies about flipping New Jersey and New York to the Republican column – has to know that he can’t win the general election without them. In this election, at least, there is no coalition that could plausibly succeed in electing Rudy that doesn’t depend for its success on millions upon millions of social conservative votes.

This doesn’t mean that pro-lifers should be sanguine about the prospect of a Giuliani nomination, much less that they should support him. (Certainly, the more successful Rudy proved to be in office – and the more successful his foreign policy, in particular – the weaker the pro-life movement’s position in the coalition would become.) But it suggests that Arkes may be slightly too pessimistic about what nominating Rudy would portend for the pro-life movement’s relationship to the GOP.

Photo by Flickr user Crimmings Light Box under a Creative Commons License.