The Pro-Life Case Against Rudy Giuliani

Hat tip to EFM for Ramesh Ponnuru’s powerful article on “why abortion should doom Giuliani’s campaign.” It’s a long one, but I’m posting the whole thing due to the message’s importance:

In April, a reporter overheard Rudy Giuliani explaining his theory of the campaign: “that the other candidates would divide up the ‘right-wing’ voters, as he called them, leaving him to consolidate the moderates and the economic and military conservatives who aren’t fixated on social issues.” It was a perfectly reasonable analysis. People for whom prohibiting abortion is a top priority are not going to favor the presidential campaign of a man who wants to keep abortion legal and, indeed, to subsidize it. It would be irrational if they did favor it, and it would be irrational for Giuliani to court them.
Since Giuliani’s campaign began, however, vast quantities of political commentary have been devoted to obscuring these simple truths. Generally this commentary has come from writers who do not themselves care about protecting unborn life but feel qualified to lecture people who do about how they should advance their agenda. While the emphases of the commentators vary, their basic argument is that presidents cannot do much to affect abortion policy except to appoint judges, and that Giuliani is just as conservative as the other candidates on that question.
This argument has not swayed many of the “right-wing” voters Giuliani mentioned. But they are not, as Giuliani’s boosters often note, the entirety of the Republican electorate. Some Republican primary voters, perhaps a third of them, think that abortion should usually be legal. In the middle are those who might be called the party’s swing voters on abortion: They are pro-life, but not vehemently so, and may pay more attention to issues such as the war on terrorism and taxes than they do to abortion in determining for whom to vote. It is this group that Giuliani is trying hardest to court. But all three groups have reason for concern about Giuliani’s position on abortion.
So far, not even pro-life organizations have gone to the barricades against Giuliani. As yet, there is no movement afoot for “Anyone but Rudy.” Perhaps pro-life leaders had the same initial reaction to Giuliani’s campaign that I did. I doubted that Giuliani could win the nomination, not least because of his support for abortion. But I did not want pro-lifers to close the door on him, either. Instead, I thought, pro-lifers should encourage him to meet us halfway. If Giuliani somehow won the nomination, I wanted it to come only after he had sweated blood trying to appeal to us. A painful nomination process would limit the damage that his precedent would set: It would establish that a pro-choicer could win the Republican nomination only if he had exceptional qualities to offset that flaw and reached a modus vivendi with pro-lifers.
But while thinking the pro-life movement and its allies should give Giuliani a chance, I thought it unlikely that I would be able to vote for him in the primary myself even if he made the right gestures. There was, for one thing, his past support for partial-birth abortion.
In 2000, Giuliani had briefly run for the Senate. He sought to replace Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a pro-choice Democrat who opposed partial-birth abortion, calling it “too close to infanticide.” The Democrat in the race, Hillary Clinton, disagreed — and so did Giuliani. He said, “I would vote to preserve the option for women.” He had said the year before that he didn’t “see my position on that changing.” He would not change his position even to get the Conservative party to endorse him in the Senate contest.
This year, Giuliani’s position changed. He said that he now supported a ban because it included an exception for the life of the mother. This explanation made no sense. He had never previously mentioned this concern, and earlier versions of the bill that he opposed had included a life-of-the-mother exception. But Giuliani’s nearly pointless dishonesty was not as troubling as the mere fact that he had once supported partial-birth abortion at all.
Think, for a moment, about the reasons the pro-life movement had highlighted this issue to begin with. Our society does not, to put it mildly, cultivate in its members a sensibility that recoils viscerally from the intentional destruction of human lives at their earliest stages. The case for protecting those lives does not come easily and naturally to people in this society, unless they happen to belong to sub-societies, almost always religious, that try to form people’s consciences against such destruction. So it is that people of generally sound mind and good will can reach what pro-lifers regard as incorrect conclusions about abortion and related issues.
But partial-birth abortion was different. Our society is not so far gone that people cannot grasp its horror. Even many people who can see nothing wrong with allowing early-term abortion instinctively knew that partial-birth abortion should not be allowed. For his part, Giuliani could not see that his indifference to the practice meant that he was either far gone in the ideology of “choice” or willing to override his moral intuitions for the sake of apparent political convenience. If a politician had, in 2000, declared that he had found Peter Singer’s arguments for infanticide persuasive, but then later announced that he had changed his mind, we would not have let bygones be bygones. We would have had serious nagging doubts about the man; and so we should, if to a lesser degree, about Giuliani.
As it turned out, Giuliani went no farther in pro-lifers’ direction. In a series of confused and confusing comments, he even declared that he believed state governments should fund abortions for women who cannot pay for them. It may be that his rival Mitt Romney’s attempts to present himself as a convert on a large number of issues, combined with the ferocious reaction to those attempts, caused Giuliani to think it better to stay in place. Pro-lifers, and everyone else, will have to take him as he is.
Lazy and biased reporters have been calling Giuliani’s position on abortion “centrist.” It has been no such thing. The libertarian columnist Deroy Murdock, a fan of Giuliani’s, thinks that his fellow pro-lifers can take solace in the fact that abortion rates fell when he was mayor. They fell faster than the national average (but more slowly than the state average). But if Giuliani’s policies caused any portion of this decline — and that is a big if — it was an incidental effect. They were certainly not designed to bring the abortion rate down.
Murdock further points out that Giuliani did not promote abortion when he was mayor. But consider the context. Late-term abortions are easily available in the city, it’s a destination for women elsewhere in the country who are seeking them, and parental notification is not required. The city, moreover, funds abortions for all who cannot afford them. Giuliani showed no discomfort with this state of affairs. Indeed, believing in private charity, Giuliani and his then wife provided a little extra funding of their own to Planned Parenthood. How much more could Giuliani have done to make abortion prevalent in New York? Murdock’s standard — that he didn’t go out of his way to promote abortion in what has rightly been called the country’s “abortion capital” — amounts to giving Giuliani credit for not going around performing abortions himself.
In a way, Giuliani’s nomination would cause more trouble for the pro-life cause than his election would. The pro-life cause can survive without a pro-life president: It emerged from the Clinton years stronger than it had been at their beginning. But it will find it harder to survive without a pro-life party. And that would be the meaning of his nomination, even if most Republican congressmen and governors remained pro-life, and even if the party platform, left unread and unheeded, continued to offer solidarity to the unborn. America has been a presidential nation, politically, for almost a century now. The parties are, in the public mind, their leaders; and those leaders are their presidential nominees.
The most specific polls on abortion policy ask respondents whether they think abortion should be banned altogether, banned with exceptions when the pregnancy threatens the mother’s life or resulted from rape, or allowed. Such polls consistently find that the people who want to ban abortion altogether and the people who want to ban it with rare exceptions add up to a majority of Americans. If Giuliani wins the Republican nomination, that majority will have no representation at the level of presidential politics. We will instead have a contest between a candidate who believes that taxpayers should fund abortion through the federal government and one who believes they should do it through state governments.
In 1973, the Supreme Court tried to declare an end to the state-by-state debate on abortion by setting abortion policy nationally. The New York Times, the next day, reported on the decision as a “historic resolution” of the abortion controversy. Before that day, supporters of legal abortion had claimed that their policy was necessary for women’s equality, or population control, or the promotion of liberty. On that day, however, they acquired the most powerful arrow in their quiver: the assertion that abortion policy was a settled matter, an assertion that had the strong support of the country’s journalistic, financial, and legal elites. The principal reason that the question has not been closed is that over the last 30 years the Republican party has stood — shakily at times, it is true, but always officially — against this elite consensus.
The abortion lobby would not be alone in declaring the Republican party to have capitulated to this consensus with Giuliani’s nomination. So would neutral observers; and even some pro-lifers would give up the fight.
But Giuliani’s judicial appointments will make up for all of that, we are told. Giuliani has promised to nominate “strict constructionists” to the federal bench. The phrase drives actual judicial conservatives, such as Justice Antonin Scalia, up the wall; but we know what he is getting at. Or do we? Giuliani says that the judges of his ideal might vote to overturn Roe, or might vote to keep it as a precedent. He is, evidently, pro-choice about his judges. He will not share with us his opinion of what the Court should do, or even whether Roe was correctly decided as an original matter. (He has been perfectly willing to sound off on other constitutional issues.) He does not stand against abortion; he does not even stand for democracy on the issue. Giuliani’s party would no longer be a pro-life party. It would instead be a party committed vaguely to a judicial philosophy that he can’t even quite name.
Now, in one sense, Giuliani’s views of Roe do not matter. None of our last three Republican presidents, all of them pro-life, has interviewed possible judicial nominees to get them to declare that they would vote to overturn Roe. If they had vetted nominees in that manner, it would have been very hard to get them confirmed.
But Giuliani’s nomination would change everything. By moving the politics of abortion to the left, his nomination would also — regardless of Giuliani’s intentions now — move the politics of judicial confirmations to the left. If the range of acceptable opinions on abortion policy narrowed, so would the range of acceptable opinions on Roe. A nominee who followed the pattern of Samuel Alito, with a history of hostility to Roe and no extravagant shows of respect for it in his confirmation hearings, would seem more extreme than Alito in fact did. If Giuliani nonetheless sent up such a nominee, would he really fight for him if the Democrats chose Roe as the battle line?
And once a nominee made it to the bench? We have reason to think that the justices are exquisitely sensitive to political cues. It has been speculated that the three Republican appointees who wrote the plurality opinion rescuing Roe in 1992 thought they were doing their party a favor; and when the current administration signaled to the justices that it did not want them to abandon racial preferences in university admissions, a decisive number of them seemed to follow the advice fairly closely. Under a President Giuliani, we can expect Justice Kennedy’s pro-Roe inclinations to harden. His own nominees might, on the bench, read the political climate the same way. The message of Giuliani’s nomination on the abortion cases would be simple: The elected branches of government are not interested in a reopening of this question.
But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that President Giuliani did, indeed, nominate stalwart conservatives to the Supreme Court; that he saw them through successful confirmation hearings; and that, with their votes, Roe was finally overturned. Let us assume, that is, that thanks to Giuliani, states would have the freedom to move against abortion. That is the maximalist case for a pro-lifer to have hope in Giuliani. What would happen the next day? If the Democratic Congress sent Giuliani legislation to codify Roe — and thus to take back that freedom from the states — would he really veto it? He has not even promised to veto abortion-funding legislation. If he let it through, pro-lifers would have gained almost nothing.
And they would have lost on other fronts. Pro-lifers have some business outside the courts, and both they and Republicans generally have deemed that business important. Most Republicans have fought to restrict federal funding on embryo-destructive research, for example, and to keep federal funds from going to organizations that promote or perform abortions overseas. The case that pro-lifers can live with Giuliani assumes that none of these legislative issues matter.
The pro-life position has carried real costs for the Republican party, in terms of lost votes. But those costs have been more than offset by the gains the party has made. For more than two decades, exit polls have shown that people who vote on the basis of abortion are far more likely to be pro-lifers than pro-choicers. (Using that measure, the issue netted George W. Bush 2.4 million votes in 2000.) Without the realignment of American politics based on social issues — a realignment caused by abortion more than any other issue — the Republicans would never have attained the near-parity they have today.
Now would be a strange moment in our politics for Republicans to abandon the pro-life cause, or even to weaken their commitment to it. The party is in serious trouble these days, for all kinds of reasons — but its pro-life position is not one of them. The public has been moving in a pro-life direction. In this season of Republican discontent, for the first time ever, a few polls show more Americans identifying themselves as pro-life than pro-choice. The 2006 elections went badly for pro-lifers: But pro-lifers, as a group, did better than Republicans, as a group. In the tightest races, the Democrats were far more likely to emphasize their economic liberalism than their social liberalism; and in a few of the tight races the Democrats won by running an out-and-out social conservative.
Some of Giuliani’s supporters have argued that his candidacy offers the Republican party a chance to “move beyond” the social issues. If Giuliani ever embraced that rationale himself — if his campaign ever became an explicit effort to sideline pro-lifers — then pro-lifers would be crazy not to respond in kind. But that rationale would also make no sense for the party’s future. Campaigning on economic and national-security issues alone, Republicans would almost certainly do worse.
In 2004, George W. Bush carried 80 percent of voters who chose their candidate based on “moral values,” but lost 80 percent of voters who cited “jobs” and “the economy” as their top issues. The New York Times that year ran a story about voters in swing states such as Ohio and Iowa who were torn between the presidential candidates: They thought their economic interests lay with John Kerry, but their values lined up with Bush. Nominating Giuliani would make such voters’ choices a lot easier. (And that’s leaving aside the possibility of a party split, a convention walkout, or a third-party challenge.)
If Giuliani lost because he alienated those voters, the damage might outlast 2008. If the Republicans nominated a pro-lifer in 2012, that candidate would have to overcome these voters’ suspicion that the party did not really care about the issues that drew them to it.
Many Giuliani supporters favor him in spite of his social-issue positions, not because of them. They do not assume that his pro-choice position would make him more electable or a better president. Rather, they assume that his virtues — his competence, his proven leadership ability, his accomplishments as the mayor who saved New York City and bucked up the nation during Sept. 11 — more than make up for that position.
Perhaps it would work in November 2008. The political danger for Republicans is that they would then be trading a one-time victory for future trouble. The next Republican nominee will, after all, almost certainly not have Giuliani’s distinctive strengths but will have to deal with his impact on the party’s structure. Win or lose, then, Giuliani could damage the brand.
The most serious case for Giuliani is that the country needs his strong leadership, particularly since we are engaged in a war on terrorism. This case cannot be dismissed out of hand, but it is not a slam-dunk either. We don’t really know how he would handle national-security policy. We can guess that he would have fired underperforming generals in Iraq; but we have no idea whether he would have launched the Iraq War in the first place. Toughness and competence are not a policy; and it is not obvious that Giuliani is more competent, or tougher, than his principal rivals.
Some of Giuliani’s pro-life opponents are single-issue voters. But all pro-lifers should rank the sanctity of life somewhere above, say, telecom policy in evaluating a candidate. There are other considerations that argue for and against Giuliani. His nomination would, however, set back causes that most Republicans have rightly considered important, and for that very reason could weaken conservatism generally. That is reason enough to reject him.

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