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Who’s right?

John Infranca | Friday, November 12, 2004

I have to chuckle a bit when I think of those Republican voters who expect the next four years will lead to an overturning of Roe v. Wade. You would think that after 16 years of Republican presidents since 1980, reality would have set in. It has not. When former President Clinton entered office, eight of nine Supreme Court justices were Republican appointees, but Roe was still the law of the land. What a high-stakes wager it was this year, reelecting a president responsible for the largest budget deficit in history and a fiasco in the Middle East. Pro-life Republicans bet the house. I wager they lost.

A recent study indicates President George W. Bush’s first term brought an increase in abortions. Economic problems and rising health costs render it likely we can expect the same in years to come. Meanwhile, abortions dropped by nearly 200,000 annually under Clinton. Such statistics make little difference to those who prefer ineffective absolutist moral posturing to actual change. One can be so tied to a cause he forgets the effect.

I took a somewhat perverse pleasure in the firestorm that resulted when Sen. Arlen Spector, the likely new Republican Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, warned Bush of the obstacles a court nominee who might overturn Roe would face in the Senate. Religious conservatives, aware of the major role they played in reelecting Bush, were up in arms. Some declared Spector unfit for the post.

This controversy between a socially moderate Northeasterner and the religious right reveals a growing tension in the GOP. The famously-unified Republicans might soon develop the kind of in-fighting Democrats have made famous.

For the past few decades, Republicans have succeeded by brandishing a clear vision while Democrats remain mired in what strategist James Carville calls “litanies, not a narrative.” The Republican vision in this election was of tax cuts, privatization and a more bellicose international presence. Democrats failed to adequately convey an alternative. To paraphrase “The Big Lebowski:” “say what you will about the tenets of the Republican Party, as least it has an ethos.” This ethos is, however, undergoing a perhaps divisive transformation.

Bush (really Karl Rove) has recast the Republican Party, much as Clinton shifted the New Democrats to the center. Bush moved to the right, the religious right in particular. He has abandoned traditional Republican positions – fiscal responsibility, government accountability, concern for the middle class and a reliable, cautious foreign policy. The assertion that he is the heir apparent to President Reagan did not convince the many conservative individuals and publications that chose not to support his reelection or endorsed Sen. John Kerry. They saw an administration that is socially conservative and economically indecipherable, and whose neo-conservative foreign policy has hindered America’s ability to lead on the global stage. The American conservative denounced the influence of the Christian Right on foreign policy and their unqualified support for Israel. Interestingly, Evangelical Christian leader Pat Robertson’s major critiques of Bush have centered on the president’s support for the road map for peace in the Middle East, which “could put the United States at cross-purposes with God.”

Robertson, along with Jerry Falwell and James Dobson, represent an element of the Republican Party that has received much attention since the election. On the other end of the spectrum are the key speakers during the recent Republican Convention: Governors Mitt Romney (Massachusetts), Arnold Schwarzenegger (California) and George Pataki (New York), as well as current and former New York City Mayors Michael Bloomberg and Rudolph Giuliani. Some of these men are potential 2008 presidential candidates. All are pro-choice and socially moderate to liberal. Their major roles in the convention compelled more than half the Republicans in the House to send a formal letter of complaint to Bush in July. They questioned why pro-life speakers were not given a more public role during the convention. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

The most prominent pro-life speaker was a Democrat (at least in theory), Zell Miller of Georgia. Sen. John McCain, another speaker, is also pro-life, but for many the renegade senator has always appeared more fiscally than socially conservative. He faced strong opposition from religious conservatives during the 2000 primaries. What to make of a party with a pro-life platform headlining its most prominent pro-choice politicians? Perhaps one should question their commitment to the cause. One must admit the Republicans are at least more receptive than Democrats to the minority view in their party on abortion. Fortunately, pro-life Democrats, often ostracized, might find some hope in their new Senate minority leader, pro-lifer Harry Reid of Nevada.

Republican supporters like the Center for Reclaiming America (for Christ) would likely actively oppose Giuliani or Pataki should they seek the 2008 nomination. A fault line might develop over the next decade or two between the religious right and the “Traditional Conservative” (mainly Northeastern) wing of the party. This is good, not for Democrats, they still need to get their act together, but for our political process. Who thought a viable third party might come from the right? Unfortunately, unless he makes a few changes, Ralph Nader is not likely to receive their nomination.

John Infranca is a theology graduate student. His column appears every other Friday. He can be reached at jinfran1@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.