WASHINGTON -- The Republican Party has undergone a fundamental repositioning -- and softening -- of its stand on abortion, recognizing that a more tolerant position on probably the most divisive issue in American politics is crucial to its hopes of reclaiming the White House.
Several major presidential candidates are barely mentioning abortion on the stump, if at all. Some members of Congress are concentrating on other issues, like taxes and education. Even some leaders of the anti-abortion movement have moderated their positions, all in the name of political pragmatism.Historically, Republicans competing for the presidential nomination believed that the only way to draw support among those who vote in caucuses and primaries was to aggressively trumpet their anti-abortion bona fides. But it often came at a high cost: alienating voters in the general election.
The move to a more accommodating position on an issue that has roiled the party for two decades has alarmed some conservatives and split the Republican presidential field. Still, most party leaders seem to view that as a more palatable alternative than giving a Democrat the presidency -- and the opportunity to appoint Supreme Court justices who are sympathetic to the abortion rights movement.
When the abortion issue does arise on the campaign trail, many Republican contenders frame the issue with a newly pragmatic, incremental approach. While insisting that they oppose abortion, several contenders have abandoned their push for a constitutional amendment banning all abortions.
Last week, in the most striking example, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the early front-runner for the Republican nomination, said he would not require a Supreme Court nominee to share his anti-abortion position. The governor had already said the nation was not ready to embrace a constitutional amendment that would outlaw abortion. Elizabeth Dole, whom most polls place second to Bush for the nomination, recently expressed similar positions.
Even Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Coalition, asserted last month that pressing for a constitutional amendment was unrealistic, saying, "A strategic, incremental goal is much more effective." He added, "We must win an election."
David N. O'Steen, executive director of the National Right to Life Committee, argued that there had been no major shift among Republicans beyond "slight changes in phraseology." But, pronouncing himself satisfied that Bush was sufficiently "a pro-life governor," he said, "Pro-lifers who truly want to save unborn children should concentrate on exposing the extreme, pro-abortion position of Al Gore rather than criticizing the pro-life position of candidates like Gov. Bush."
This new accommodation has spilled over to Capitol Hill as well. In a notable triumph of practical politics over ideology, House Republicans this year picked an advocate of abortion rights, Rep. Thomas M. Davis of Virginia, to head the National Republican Congressional Committee, which is responsible for the party's drive to retain its House majority next year.
The party has not retreated from its basic anti-abortion philosophy. Few prominent Republicans predict that the party will rewrite its platform calling for a constitutional amendment -- at least not before the elections next year. Every Republican candidate for president in 2000 describes himself or herself as "pro-life."
Yet there has been an unmistakable shift in tone and emphasis, with some candidates sounding themes encouraging personal responsibility, adoption and sexual abstinence and calling for parental consent for minors seeking abortions. If they mention the procedure at all, the focus is often more on opposing late-term abortions.
Richard N. Bond, in his swan song as chairman of the Republican National Committee in 1993, castigated the party for being preoccupied with abortion and implored Republicans to "not cling to zealotry masquerading as principle."
In an interview last week, Bond said: "We've come a heck of a long way. True believers such as Pat Robertson recognize how divisive the issue is. They recognize that a more pragmatic approach is called for. They recognize that candidates like Bush need to be given the license to communicate a sincere concern for abortion without it being a cue for intolerance."
Bond said it was time for the party to move beyond abortion-rights opponents who argue that "if you're not for our point of view, you're a baby killer and you're a bad person -- and you really can't be a member of the Republican Party."
Many leading Republicans said the repositioning has been borne out of practical politics. There has been a recognition, they said, that a constitutional amendment was not realistic. Another factor is that Republicans are eager to win back the White House and have concluded that a more inclusive, tolerant position is the only way to win support.
Polls show that the public remains divided over abortion, although more and more people seem to endorse what some call a "permit but discourage" approach toward abortion.
Bush and Dole are not alone among the Republican contenders who are carefully calibrating their positions. Rep. John Kasich of Ohio has said that anti-abortion Republicans should "lower the volume" in the abortion debate. Sen. John McCain of Arizona has called for a change in the party platform to reach out to people who support abortion. Lamar Alexander, the former governor of Tennessee, has said he will accept a running mate who backs abortion rights.
Such positions have jolted some conservatives and sharply divided the presidential field, with several of the more ideological candidates, including Gary Bauer, Steve Forbes and Sen. Bob Smith of New Hampshire, portraying their rivals as too squishy.
"It may be the virus of pragmatism that has entered the bloodstream of the conservative movement in the Republican Party," said Patrick J. Buchanan, the conservative columnist who is running for president. "I'm frankly astonished that George Bush has put himself outside the mainstream of the party on the issue of life. He's running a general election strategy before there's a general election."
Buchanan added that when candidates cannot commit to court appointees who are anti-abortion, their "pro-life position is utterly hollow."
Staking out his position on the issue earlier this year, former Vice President Dan Quayle said, "Because my commitment is rooted in conscience rather than politics, those I select for the most critical positions in government, including my running mate or nominees to the Supreme Court, will share it."