Life Watch: After the Election–A Sober Reckoning

Midge Decter once offered the model of the Jewish Telegram: “Start worrying now—details to follow.” With our necessary lead time, I write now only two weeks before the election, and by the time this is read, we will all know how this election—the cause of so much nail-biting and bewilderment—has come out. As I write, George W. Bush has preserved a slim edge in the national polls, and my intuition is that he is going to pull through to win. On the other hand, like many other sublunary creatures, I have often confounded my hopes with my estimates, and I confess that my intuitions have at times been wrong. In that case, even the Jewish Telegram will have been too late: If Al Gore has won, then by the time you read this, the prices of real estate will have already skyrocketed in the Cayman Islands and Ireland, as people try to figure out some civil place where the rest of us can live.

But that too would be an illusion. If Gore has won, there will be no safe enclave, for no one has used the United Nations as the Clinton-Gore administration has, with unabating energy, using every bit of leverage to project into the international arena the agenda of the Left and radical feminism. No matter whether there is an international conference on housing, or children, or the condition of women, the conference is converted into a forum for population planning, “reproductive rights,” and the condemnation of any lingering moral reservations about the gay and lesbian life. Resolutions adopted in these settings can then be called “international conventions,” and they can be cited as part of “international law” before courts in the United States. With moves of that kind, Team Gore and Clinton would secure, from the outside as well, the revolution it will have brought forth in our politics through the rule of the courts.

What that rule of the courts would mean, with a Gore victory, had become clear without the need for any high arts of conjecture. In June, the Supreme Court had brought us to the threshold of accepting infanticide outright—and then crossed the threshold. The two Clinton appointees had led the Court, in the Stenberg case, in explaining, in the most detached legal language, that the killing of a child at the point of birth was no longer such a big deal. It was no longer, that is, a legitimate concern of the law if the effort to protect that child just might inhibit an abortion. For this advance in jurisprudence, Justices Breyer and Ginsburg required the help of Republican appointees Stevens, O’Connor, and Souter.

Barbara Bush, campaigning for her son, pointed with pride to Justice David Souter, an appointee of her husband. Souter she offered as a certain evidence that Republican presidents will not be so indecorous as to insist on a commitment to the pro-life position as a litmus test. Her son probably knows better than to risk the appointment of another Souter. But no one, with any realism, entirely discounts the possibility that another Souter, with a southwestern accent, could nevertheless be appointed by another Bush. But what is entirely impossible is that any accident of that kind would be allowed to occur on the other side, in a Gore administration: No sheepish waiving of “litmus tests” there; no pretense that appointees could be anything but committed, in the style of Breyer and Ginsburg, to a right to abortion that admits no shadings or exceptions, even at the point of birth.

With a new administration under Bush, we were expecting something notably, strikingly better. But if the interval has brought the election of Bush, the Jewish Telegram would now in fact be pertinent, for now is precisely the time to begin worrying. The election of Bush would have averted a catastrophe, thorough and decisive. But in place of catastrophe we would have now a source of serious apprehension. For Bush we have preserved the highest hopes. Yet it must be said, in all candor, that the conduct of the campaign must stir the most realistic fears that the concerns of pro-lifers will not only be disappointed or abandoned, but actually discredited, with the pro-lifers politically neutered.

That is a severe judgment, but it would require a rare species of fool not to be alert to the signs that were all about us, in the campaign that was shaped and carried through for Bush. My own reading is that Bush and even the people around him were strongly pro-life in their reflexes. For reasons that may be quite defensible, the Bush team came to the judgment that our “culture” had taken a turn, that even voters who were pro-life became unsettled when politicians began to talk about this issue. On grounds of prudence, then, the Bush team decided to be reticent. Bush would send out some telling signals: He would speak about creating an ethic of life that would encompass, under the protections of the law, “the unborn.” That was a notable line, which could never have come from the lips of Gore or any Democratic nominee.

Yet, Bush persistently held back from giving the reasons, not only on abortion but on affirmative action, gay rights, and homosexual marriage. But without knowing the reasons, there was no way of gauging his understanding of the issues and the seriousness of his commitment. And surely one of the most inexplicable “nonevents” of the campaign had to involve the Born-Alive Infants Protection Act. That measure has become perhaps overly familiar to the readers of this magazine over the last eight years. But no measure could have been more modest or moderate in its approach than the move simply to protect the child who had survived the abortion. And no simple proposition planted in the law could have run deeper than that proposition contained in the “findings” of the House Committee on the Judiciary: that the child has a claim to the protection of the law that cannot pivot on whether anyone happens to want her.

The Born-Alive Infants Protection Act was passed in the House by a vote of 380-15, and several weeks before the election, it came to the threshold of the Senate. Raising that bill on the floor of the Senate could have produced awkward moments for Sen. Joseph Lieberman. With the show of the slightest interest on the part of Bush, that bill could have been put before the Senate before the election. Indeed, with the slightest expression of interest on the part of the candidate, the issue would have been covered by the New York Times and the major media.

The most puzzling part of the campaign is why this issue—one of the easiest to present, and commanding the widest support—never elicited the endorsement of Governor Bush. And indeed, it never even drew from him any sign that the measure had come within his notice. But his staff, we knew, had been amply supplied with the reports and memoranda on the bill. If Bush had never been aware of it, that would be quite startling. But if he had been aware of it, and quite deliberately said nothing to support even this most modest of bills, the implication can only be regarded as chilling.

I won’t make much more of this, since our readers know just how much I had invested myself in this particular project, and I am hardly, any longer, a detached observer. Still, the absence of the slightest commentary or endorsement on the part of Bush could hardly have been a matter of inadvertence. And what could be said about the Born-Alive Infants Act could be said about the cause of gay rights, homosexual marriage, and the Boy Scouts. One after another, the conservative side commanded the support of more than 70 percent of the public, and still the conservative candidate would not venture a word.

Let us presume, as we do, that Bush’s heart was in the right place, and that once in office, he will move deftly, with the right people, to do the right thing. Still, it must be said that he fashioned, in his campaign, one of the worst lessons that could possibly be taught: that it is no longer prudent or respectable to sound the conservative moral arguments in public. If Bush managed to win with a campaign of that kind, the implications will be fearful. Orthodoxies are established through the things that it becomes respectable or unrespectable to say in public. By confirming that the conservative arguments cannot be spoken, Bush would do more than Gore could ever do to put conservatives and pro- lifers even further to the edge of our public discourse. If Bush managed to win, while holding to this position, his aides could credibly say later that he was not elected for his position on these moral questions. Those questions can always be pushed then to the side, in favor of the issues on which Bush staked his reputation, because he had campaigned on them in public. At the same time, the coalition that Bush puts together, as a ruling coalition, can replace the social conservatives with other groups, ever interested in attaching themselves to a party in power.

One Republican judge, who is a savvy observer of our politics, ex-pressed his unease several months back over this curious reticence of Bush. The governor had failed to come to the support of Justices Scalia and Thomas after the Stenberg case, and his hesitation had been chalked up to prudence. But as my friend, the judge, pointed out, that apology for Bush suggested that he was a kind of stealth candidate, holding back his true views. If that is the case, how do we know that we are not the ones being fooled? The judge put this further question: If Bush were faced with a fight in the Senate over the confirmation of a nominee to the Supreme Court, why should he draw down any political capital to wage that fight? If he was never willing to take a position with 70 percent of the public behind him, why should it be worth it to him to risk his political standing by accepting an abrasive encounter in the Senate?

The questions are well put, and the best thing to say for Bush is that he knows who his enemies are. It is said that he wanted revenge for the defeat of his father. If so, that is a wholesome passion, for it reveals a sense of moral outrage. His father should never have been cashiered by the American people in favor of a man of the moral caliber of Clinton. On the other hand, Bush may try to show his large nature by showing how generously he deals with Democrats and his former adversaries, while he shows his real steel to Republicans who have expressed, in public, their concerns about his campaign. By the time this column reaches the stands, we will know whether the temper of Bush bears any interest. And we will know then whether it is a time of hope, or a time to start worrying.


  • Hadley Arkes

    Hadley P. Arkes (born 1940) is an American political scientist and the Edward N. Ney Professor of Jurisprudence and American Institutions at Amherst College, where he has taught since 1966.

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