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09.20.10

The Tea Party Abortion Doctrine

Last week’s primaries elevated two more candidates who, like Sarah Palin, would ban abortion for rape and incest victims. John Avlon on the hypocrisy that could fracture the GOP.

Call it the Palin Standard, the new normal creeping into Republican abortion politics—opposition even in cases of rape and incest. When Sarah Palin was plucked from obscurity two years ago to become the VP nominee, McCain’s senior policy aides did not know that she held this extreme position, which is shared by only 15 percent of the population, according to a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll.

Now at least six Tea Party-backed statewide GOP candidates—Nevada’s Sharron Angle, Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell, Colorado’s Ken Buck, Kentucky’s Rand Paul, Alaska’s Joe Miller, and New York’s Carl Paladino—back this absolutist stand.

That’s twice the number of GOP Senate candidates who are broadly pro-choice this year—Illinois’ Mark Kirk, Connecticut’s Linda McMahon, and Oregon’s James Huffman.  And it’s telling that Mike Castle and Lisa Murkowski—two centrist GOP candidates who were RINO-hunted in closed primaries—were both pro-choice. 

“It could be a fatal blow for our hopes of recapturing the mainstream middle.”

It’s worth pointing out the obvious hypocrisy given the Tea Party’s views of government—it’s hard to imagine a more direct imposition on individual freedom than for the state to force a girl to carry her rapist’s baby for nine months.  It’s even crueler if that baby is her father’s child. 

When Sharron Angle was asked explicitly about just such a scenario in a radio interview unearthed by Sam Stein of the Huffington Post, she said, “I think that two wrongs don't make a right” and went on to advocate turning “a lemon situation into lemonade.”

There’s a growing gap between the Tea Party’s talk about representing libertarian principles and many of their candidates acting as Trojan Horses for social conservative activist causes.  I agree with those Republicans who say that this election is not going to be about social issues.  I respect people who are antiabortion as a matter of personal principle or religious faith, and I don’t believe that deeply held beliefs on this most difficult issue should be a litmus test for candidates, pro or con. Good people can disagree.  But the soothing big-tent implications offered by those who say the GOP should de-emphasize social issues only seem to go one way. There is no concurrent sense of tolerance for candidates with liberal or libertarian social positions.  Where are the Tea Party candidates who are pro-choice?

Social conservatives point to polls that show more Americans identifying themselves as "pro-life" as a way of justifying this drift toward a more rigid litmus party test on abortion. But this trend has more to do with labels than underlying beliefs.  There is a significant difference between saying you are personally opposed to abortion and saying that you believe the government should impose that position on everyone else.  In fact, a 2008 poll by the Republican Majority for Choice found that 78 percent of all Republicans—and even 66 percent of pro-life Republicans—believed that “a woman should make the decision to have an abortion, not the government.”  (A new poll will be released before the midterm elections).    

Pro-life and pro-choice are not equivalent positions. You can be personally opposed to abortion and yet still believe that it is an individual woman’s right to choose. The real distinction is between antiabortion absolutists and people who support reasonable restrictions but believe that government should not ultimately make this decision.  

Activist elites on either side might be deeply divided on this issue, but the majority of Americans are not—they say that abortion should remain safe, legal, and rare. Reducing the number of abortions in this country is an honorable goal, but it should be a matter of persuasion, not legislation.

Not so long ago, there was a vigorous tradition of pro-choice Republicans—their ranks included Barry Goldwater (whose wife co-founded Arizona Planned Parenthood in the 1930s), Gerald Ford, Sandra Day O’Connor, George H.W. Bush, Colin Powell, Bill Weld, Christie Todd Whitman, Tom Ridge, Rudy Giuliani, George Pataki, and both Barbara and Laura Bush.

Now, while Goldwater is lionized, his social libertarianism is conveniently ignored. The GOP political calculus: It is simply easier for candidates to call themselves pro-life rather than inviting a constant fight on an issue largely theoretical for most elected offices.

“The history of the GOP has always been about responsible policy and limited government. There is no policy more irresponsible and out of line with that history than allowing the government to ban personal reproductive choices even for women who have been raped,” says Candace Straight, the national co-chairwoman for the Republican Majority for Choice. “The fact that the new rising stars of the GOP are pushing this platform is not only scary, it could be a fatal blow for our hopes of recapturing the mainstream middle.”

And while no member of the current all pro-life GOP leadership would publicly agree with her statement, Republican Senate Committee Chairman John Cornyn reinforced the practical political aspects of this message when he told The New York Times last week, “I've talked to a lot of folks who are basically independents who say: ‘I'm fine with the Republicans as long as we're talking about fiscal responsibility. Where I go off the reservation is when you talk about social issues.’"

Even the conservative populist Tea Party supporters do not support this new Palin standard.  A detailed survey by the Times found that only 13 percent of Tea Partiers say that social issues like abortion are their primary concern and only 32 percent believe that it should be illegal in all cases, including rape and incest

Nonetheless, this new group of candidates campaigning under the Tea Party banner is trying to quietly move the Republican Party significantly to the right on social issues. Encouraged by the conservative feminist presence of Sarah Palin, there is a new absolutism on abortion, one that places ideology over individuals, and drives out a diversity of opinion. Backers of big government and a cradle-to-grave welfare state might logically support the position of forcing women to bring unwanted children into the world. But for alleged advocates of a smaller government, it is both a philosophical and practical contradiction, driven more by faith than reason. 

If rank-and-file Republicans are intimidated into accepting this new normal—opposing abortion even in the case of rape or incest—it will not only alienate more centrists and abandon libertarians, it will reignite the culture wars, undercutting the still solidifying national consensus around safe, legal, and rare.

John Avlon's new book Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America is available now by Beast Books both on the Web and in paperback. He is also the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics and a CNN contributor. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.