Three weeks ago, Selwa Roosevelt, who was Ronald Reagan's chief of protocol and is now described as a "Washington journalist" (proving there are fewer requirements for that moniker than for a driver's license), wrote a column for The Washington Post. In it she made a claim we have heard before, that if the Republican Party fails to abandon its pro-life position, more women will join the ranks of the Democrats and the "gender gap" will become permanent, dooming the GOP to minority status.
New York Times columnist Frank Rich, whose experience as that newspaper's reviewer of Broadway shows has qualified him to write farce on the op-ed page, sees Republican opposition to abortion as an attempt by conservatives to promote misogyny and bring back the bustle. Both Ms. Roosevelt and Mr. Rich suggest that abortion is the wedge that drove "moderate" women into the arms of Bill Clinton (a frightening metaphor).
One problem with Ms. Roosevelt's argument: It isn't true. According to The Roper Center's post-election survey of voters as they left polling stations around the country, the electorate remains "in a generally conservative mood." On the incendiary issue of abortion, polling revealed that an overwhelming majority in most states want at least some restrictions placed on the procedure. Kansas was a typical example of voter sentiment nationally. While only 11 percent of those polled would outlaw abortions in all cases, an additional 21 percent said they should be legal in "few" cases, and 36 percent want them legal in "most" cases. That means that in Kansas, 68 percent of those surveyed support at least some limitations on abortion on demand.
The data from the Roper Poll show the voting patterns are more complex than male/female, pro-life/pro-choice, and even Democrat/Republican. While single women "are one of the most Democratic subgroups in the country, married women, especially those with children in the home, tend to be much more Republican than their single sisters."
The problem for Republicans is not their message, which was good enough to win three presidential elections and the Congress twice in a row. The problem is that the GOP lacks a messenger who can connect with women voters. With a candidate who stands squarely on conservative principles, including the social ones, Republicans can win back the 27 percent of self-described "conservatives" who voted for Mr. Clinton last November.
As the Roper analysis concludes: "One reason [Bob] Dole failed to get a healthier margin from conservatives and Republicans is that his message never resonated with them. When we asked voters if they agreed or disagreed with the statement, 'Bob Dole never gave me a good reason to vote for him,' 56 percent agreed. Even within his base ... of Republicans and conservatives, a large segment of these cohorts also agreed that the Dole message was not an adequate reason to support him."
Abandoning the social issues, especially abortion, contrary to what Ms. Roosevelt suggests, would doom the Republican Party again to permanent minority status because those social conservatives who now support Republicans would leave the party. There are not enough pro-choice Republicans to take their place.
The new GOP chairman, Jim Nicholson, understands this. In an interview, he told me that there will be more, not less, discussion of social issues, including the necessity of faith in God, ethics, and morality "because that's where the breakdown [of culture] occurs, especially in urban areas. It would be irresponsible for us as a party to jettison these issues."
President Clinton has prospered politically because he is like a parent who allows a child to eat his dessert instead of his vegetables, to keep the child happy. Seeking such short-term approval leads to nutritional deficiency. Mr. Clinton's pandering to voters' feelings instead of tending to society's ultimate needs garners high polling numbers. And for him, that's enough.
Republicans must show they have answers to every question raised about abortion--from who will help the woman to who will care for the child should he or she remain "unwanted." If the GOP can win that argument, then it can shift the focus to the ultimate question: Why would you want to kill a baby when everything is in place to help you and the child? That will change the dynamic of the abortion debate.
© 1997, Los Angeles Times Syndicate