Lifewatch: Savorings of an Election Won Well

The Republican sweep came on the tenth anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s landslide re-election, when the Gipper carried 49 states. After the election, my friends at the National Review began their next issue with this lead: “Heh, heh, heh.”

Pro-lifers would be amply justified in permitting themselves the same, full savoring of these latest results. For there was nothing the least bit equivocal about the pattern, or the meaning, disclosed in these returns. Take them from any angle: Not a single pro-life Republican incumbent was dislodged anywhere, in the House, the Senate, or the gubernatorial chairs. On the other hand, pro-abortion incumbents were defeated in about 29 seats. Overall, the estimates are that the pro-life contingent in the House was enlarged by about 40 votes. In the Senate, there was a net gain of six pro-life members.

But the details enhance the savoring: The strongly pro-life Mike DeWine in Ohio replaces Howard Metzenbaum; Rick Santorum, with a 100 percent pro-life voting record in the House, replaces Harris Wofford in Pennsylvania. Wofford, a Catholic, had helped to cultivate the message that one could be pro-abortion and still be faithful to Catholic teaching. He had been appointed initially by Governor Robert Casey to fill the unexpired term of the late Senator Heinz; but he had been appointed on the assumption that he had shared Casey’s position on abortion. Once in office, however, he struck off in a notably different direction. He has been dispatched now to his political reward. But surveying the rest of the scene: John Ashcroft, in Missouri, replaces Senator Danforth, who remained officially pro-life, but who had long ago declared, to staff on the Hill, his weariness with the issue. Ashcroft brings new sources of energy and conviction, along with Rod Grams, in Minnesota, far better than the incumbent he is replacing (Durenberger). The same thing may be said even more emphatically for John Kyl, replacing Dennis DeConcini in Arizona, and Spence Abraham replacing Donald Riegle in Michigan.

Over in the House, a scanning of the new figures on the scene reveals a landscape even more crackling with energy and new possibilities. There is the irrepressible J.C. Watts, the former football player, newly elected in Oklahoma. And there is an engaging new contingent of pro-life women: Sue Myrick (North Carolina); Linda Smith (Washington), replacing the pro-abort, Jolene Unsoeld; Helen Chenoweth (Idaho), replacing the pro-abort, Larry LaRocco; Enid Waldhotz (Utah), replacing another pro-abort, Karen Shepherd.

But apart from these additions to the pro-life contingent in the Republican majority, the electoral current also shaped the character of the Democratic minority. Pro-life Democrat Mike Doyle defeated a pro-abortion Republican candidate in a race to fill the seat vacated by Rick Santorum. Bart Stupa, a pro-life Democrat in Michigan fended off a challenge from a pro-abortion Republican. At the same time, pro-life Democrats in the South found it easier to ride out the Republican tide. And so, some of these Democrats strengthened the slim pro-life contingent in their own party, while they helped to firm up the Republicans by neatly screening from the party caucus several partisans of abortion. Add to this, as we used to say, the frosting: before we went to bed on election night, it was reported that Henry Hyde was likely to become the chairman of the House Committee on the Judiciary.

Could we believe it when we awoke the next day? I floated over to my class on the American Constitution, and with a proper restraint, I recalled Churchill’s admonition: In victory, magnanimity. With that, I reached into my bag and pulled out . . . a champagne glass. I went on, remarking that this was not a moment for gloating. I reached into the same bag and pulled out . . . the champagne bottle. The laughs wrapped around the room as I proceeded to unwrap the bottle, unscrew the wire, ease out the cork, and finally, to pour the wine of celebration.

But then, the time for sobriety, or kind of, for I must confess that I remain incorrigibly hopeful. I do not think that the Republicans in the Congress are going to falter. There are many veterans, like Bill Archer of Houston (in the Ways and Means Committee), who have waited for years to take command. They are focused; they have a precise sense of what they wish to do; and they are joined now by fresh recruits, with new sources of energy, ready to do it—on everything, that is, except abortion. Thanks to all of the publicity drawn to the “Contract with America,” the reporters and even onlookers walking by have a crisp sense of the measures that Newt Gingrich and Company mean to enact in their first 100 days, and indeed in their first term: ask about the list and people will mention the line-item veto, the removal of “unfunded mandates,” the passage of amendments on balanced budgets, and prayer in schools. It was no accident that abortion was omitted from the Contract. The Republican leadership sought out the broadest consensus, and removed some of the more divisive issues. And so, it is hardly an accident that there is no comparable sense of the first steps that are likely to be taken on abortion by a party that seems to be now, more strongly than ever, pro-life.

Nor is there any sense of a sequence of steps, informed by a design or a strategy. The pro-life groups have no surety themselves about the path to be taken, and even professionals close to the scene are reluctant to speculate. The pro-life lobbyists have been watching their forces on Capitol Hill ebb away for so many years that their expectations have been subdued. In one survey, the National Right to Life took the measure of candidates by their stands on the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA), and the public funding of abortions. And the survey was even willing to count as pro-life candidates people like Sonny Bono, who accepted Roe v. Wade, but opposed the public funding of abortion. Yet, FOCA could not summon the votes to pass, even in the last Congress, and thanks to the resourcefulness of Henry Hyde and Mark Gallagher, there was an 80-vote margin to preserve the resistance of public funding. Still, there might be a chance now to make the Hyde Amendment a more permanent part of the law. And there would be nothing trivial in having this further assurance: that there will be no national health plan that incorporates abortion and spreads its clinics throughout the landscape.

But no one has suggested so far that there is a chance to undo the notorious Freedom of Access Act. Nor has there been talk just yet of removing the legislative ground for some of Bill Clinton’s executive orders to fund the counseling of abortion, or the performance of abortions in the military. And even these measures would not imply any move to begin scaling back the sweeping rights to abortion contained in Roe v. Wade.


The irony of this moment for us is that we are in the possession of enlarged, new assets, acquired through a decorous muting of the pro- life argument. To the extent that abortion entered the calculation of the voters, it proved again to be a pronounced, net plus. But almost none of these elections was waged on abortion as a primary, or even a prominent, issue. Yet, it was there, always remarked on, always noted in the comparison of the candidates. And the parties are so constituted now that, when Republicans are swept into office, the tide delivers candidates who are more and more pro-life. But then the irony kicks in: precisely because the pro-life issue was rarely made the object of discussion, we have no clear guide as to what these pro-life candidates are inclined to do. Their pro-life stance may merely be, for them, a leaning, or a disposition — but a disposition unexercised will soon grow feeble. When even a columnist like George Will gives up on the pro-life cause — when he declares, on radio, that Roe v. Wade is now decisively, irretrievably, “settled” — it becomes clear just how powerful are the currents, felt in Washington, for the acceptance of abortion. If the new members of Congress soon feel these currents, they could lose their interest in doing anything in particular . . . or anything just now. If conviction erodes quickly in this Congress, bearing this renewed promise, the demoralization is likely to run even deeper.


And yet, I cannot talk myself out of the hopefulness that abounds right now after this revolution at the polls. The new members of Congress, like J.C. Watts and Sue Myrick, and the returning sophomores, like Charles Canady, have so much spark that it is hard to imagine all of this liveliness not bursting into something worth watching, something that counts. And beyond everything else, as a point of assurance, is Henry Hyde. He has evidently been obliged to give a priority of place to the Republican Contract as a condition of his leadership in the party. But, the new chairman of the Judiciary Committee has wit, resilience, and an acute political sense. He will know what can be done, in what measures, with what timing. No one in Congress has a surer sense on these matters; no one is better placed, at this moment, to grasp his warrant.

And so here we stand, in the aftermath of the election, filled, irresistibly, with hope; braced, as ever, for disappointment; and waiting now for Henry.


Hadley Arkes is Ney Professor of Jurisprudence in Amherst College. His book The Return of George Sutherland: Restoring a Jurisprudence of Natural Rights has just been published by Princeton University Press.



  • 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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