alien & sedition.
Tuesday, March 13, 2007
  The End of the Litmus Test?

Yesterday I wrote about an article by Noemie Emery at the Weekly Standard, which argues that Rudy Giuliani is positioned to win the GOP nomination despite his "socially liberal" tendencies. Emery's analysis of Giuliani's appeal is convincing enough, but let's look a bit more at whether the litmus test is really endangered.

Emery argues:
After 30-plus years of fierce, intense arguments, much emotion, and many polls taken, both sides in the abortion wars have been mugged by reality, and realize that neither is likely to reach its major goals soon. Dreams of outlawing abortion on the one hand, or, on the other, of seeing it funded, legitimized, and enshrined as an unassailable civil right, have faded in the face of a large and so-far unswayable public opinion that is conflicted, ambivalent, and inclined to punish any political figure it sees as too rigid, too strident, or too eager to go to extremes. For this reason, no politician shrewd enough to make himself president is likely to go on a pro-life or pro-choice crusade.
Activists are becoming increasingly sophisticated both in accepting the political complexities of the abortion debate, and in recognizing that a president's personal beliefs in fact have little bearing on the state of play. Emery acknowledges that, for many dedicated conservatives, this kind of subtle analysis is unconvincing. But, she says, "the surprising thing is that these debates are occurring at all."
This is why early assessments of Giuliani's possible weakness may be misleading, among them polls indicating that many social conservatives would never back a pro-choice nominee. They do not show what might happen if the nominee pledged not to push for a pro-choice agenda, or if he were endorsed and supported by conservative icons who vouched for him, campaigned with and for him, and swore to their backers that he was all right.

The deal in the works has been carefully crafted to make sure that no one loses too much. Conservatives would be getting a pro-choice nominee, but one who would not push a pro-choice agenda, and one who would give them (as far as presidents can be sure in these matters) the kind of judges they long for. Giuliani would not be required to renounce his beliefs, merely to appoint the right kind of judges and to remain more or less neutral in a policy area in which, to be honest, he has never shown that much interest. The Republicans will remain the pro-life party--as desired by the bulk of their voters and required by the workings of the two-party system--though now with a larger, more varied, and in some ways more competitive field of candidates.
Emery suggests that Democrats, too, might move away from an abortion litmus test - but that's another discussion entirely.

For Emery, the litmus test has been problematic from the beginning, dictating from the extremes a debate in which most Americans fall somewhere in the conflicted middle:
It has been a very good deal for the people who imposed it, but a very bad one for the country at large. It has meant that a candidate for national office must begin by embracing ideas that have been rejected by seven in ten of Americans, while a candidate who comes close to the center of public opinion would never be allowed to compete.... Worst of all, it posed the real possibility that a candidate would come forth who seemed equipped to deal with a crisis, but who, because he held the "wrong views" in the eyes of the interest groups, would not be allowed to emerge.
That crisis, of course, is terrorism - and the man who "seems equipped" to deal with it is Rudy Giuliani, President of 9/11.

I don't know enough about Emery to guess whether this is strictly objective analysis, or whether she is a Giuliani sympathizer making a case for Rudy's viability.

I do know that Ramesh "Party of Life" Ponnuru disagrees with her. Citing the need to look beyond the "negative connotations" of the term "litmus tests," Ponnuru asks what the phrase really means:
Only that some people have the nerve to prefer candidates who agree with them on the issues that they care about.
He criticizes Emery for being "too quick to declare, and to celebrate, its demise."
[M]y own guess is that pro-life and pro-choice voters will cease to care about the views of presidential nominees only when the politics of abortion is de-nationalized: which is to say, after Roe v. Wade has fallen.
It seems Emery is putting the cart just slightly before the horse: she argues that anti-choicers will support a candidate as long as he promises to appoint the judges to overturn Roe; Ponnuru seems to think they'll believe it when they see it - and meanwhile, litmus test away.

At any rate, Ponnuru doesn't think the litmus test has been such a bad thing at all:
No cost-benefit analysis is complete if it looks only at costs, as Emery does. What have been the benefits of the pro-life “litmus test”? It has kept open a question that the courts, among others, have repeatedly and arrogantly tried to declare closed. It has helped to promote policy changes that have brought the abortion rate down. It has made the Republican party a more conservative party across the board; and it has furthered a campaign to restore the judiciary to its proper place in the constitutional scheme of things, a campaign that would have gotten nowhere without it.
One could apply a pretty cynical analysis here. The abortion litmus test has indeed given discipline and impetus to the conservative agenda. It has done so at the cost, to anti-choice true believers, of electing presidents who pay lip service to an extremist anti-abortion agenda, but are powerless to actually do anything about it. And thus, considering how much political damage the Republican party would suffer if Roe were ever actually overturned, from the point of view of a GOP operative, the litmus test has perhaps been a pretty great thing all around.

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