Once you take John McCain off the table, as many do, the top-tier of the GOP is left with three candidates. Two of them gave money to Planned Parenthood and one lobbied for an abortion group. And none of them support the Human Life Amendment, which, in many states, is the test for a Right to Life endorsement in state races. That’s an indictment about something in the GOP, although, to be frank, I am not sure exactly what. I think that the main phenomenon is a disconnect between pro-life voters and groups and candidates.
Either our pool of candidates is not particularly pro-life and they simply wear it as a costume, or they do not believe that you can get elected with a strong pro-life position. In any case, that is something that GOP candidates and GOP activists need to think deeply about. In many ways, I agree William Saletan’s argument that the right has won the abortion wars in an incremental fashion. Slowly the ball has moved to the right. And this is not just legally, but also in people’s minds. But the question for the pro-life movement is: where next? If they can’t keep their candidates in line, what can they do? This move has depended on a public debate on their terms. (meaning debating partial birth abortion and parental notification versus criminalization)
Last week, after a bunch of people left the McCain campaign, I got several calls from friends working for candidates in the 2nd tier. And they were despondent. They are strong, strong, strong pro-lifers, as are their candidates. They know that it would take a near miracle for their candidates to win the nomination, much less the White House. But they are in the fight for what they believe. And they always assumed that the GOP wouldn’t abandon them on this issue. What has sunk in with my friends is that, with the exit of John McCain, the GOP has lost their only first-tier unambiguous, if unenthusiastic, pro-lifer.
Now they aren’t so sure. And they aren’t so sure where this takes the party. For pro-lifers, there is no deeper issue than this one. But there is another perspective worth considering.
Pro-lifers form, in many cases, the core of the GOP volunteer base. It is not an accident that social moderates have fewer volunteers. And when the RNC ships people around prior to elections, social moderates are sent staffers, and social conservatives are sent pro-lifers, often in the form of home schoolers. Are pro-lifers going to turn out in the same way? Who will be the new volunteer base for the GOP? After all, the GOP turnout operation is, basically, a mechanical process that turns volunteer hours into votes. But without the volunteer hours, it is basically impossible to drive out those unreliable conservative voters.
In other words, the loss of strong pro-life voices could lead to a short-term losses for the GOP due to difficulties in turning out the unreliable parts of the base. I say short term because there would be some corrective over time and we would either find new volunteers or revert. But ….
And this is saying nothing of the swing voters. There are plenty of swing voters for whom abortion is what brings them into the GOP. (there are also swing voters for whom abortion drives people out)
Now one could argue that someone with strong appeal to moderates could change this dynamic by increasing moderate turnout. And, in many cases that is a real possibility. Arnold Schwarzenegger in California is a successful case-in-point. But that wasn’t even a close election. And 2008 is going to be a close election, no question about it. One might argue that Hillary Clinton will drive up GOP volunteer activity. I think there is something to that, but there are plenty of people in the GOP base who will not vote for a thrice-married, basically lapsed Catholic or a Mormon. I meet more every day.
Where do we go? Parties are coalitions. And an essential part of our coalition has been social conservatives and pro-lifers in the phone banks. Where do we go if these are our candidates?