In a recent Washington Post op-ed (May 6, 1999), Richard Cohen unveiled a strategy that pro-life forces will need to resist before the next presidential election. Like Cohen, abortion advocates are likely to bait pro-lifers over the next 18 months, preaching that their presidential candidates lack integrity if they don’t make abortion the major theme of their candidacy.
Cohen describes several of the Republican candidates—and I assume this is meant to be derogatory—as more “pro-winning” than pro-life. Cohen complains: “If I called myself ‘pro-life,’ I could not take a casual attitude toward abortion…. How can they [Republican candidates] be so moderate, so temperate, so coolly pragmatic about the taking of so-called innocent life?”
Cohen is a smart guy: He knows that, when pro-lifers sound fanatical, they lose votes, even from their own moderate supporters. And he also knows how to appeal to our moral vanity. A weakness of many good men is this need to keep up saintly appearances. The last thing any pro- life supporter wants to be accused of is cowardice in the face of a moral outrage. Leaders in the pro-life movement periodically accuse each other of lack of purity. The initial scuffling between pro-life groups over the credentials of various candidates was widely reported in the media. Cohen figures, Why not just keep pro-lifers fighting among themselves?
Pro-lifers squirm when you accuse them of putting politics ahead of principle. Point out, as Cohen did, that they are adopting, oh boy, a strategy to win an election, and pro- lifers start dropping to their knees to ask for forgiveness. Why the guilt? What’s wrong with pro-life candidates having a strategy that gets them elected and puts them in power? Abortion supporters would like nothing better than to bait us into the narrowness and stridency that leads almost inevitably to defeat. Whether or not pro-life leaders will take the bait remains to be seen.
There are still some in the pro- life movement who seem unwilling to distinguish between a commitment to principle and an election strategy For them, a “pro-life candidate” wears only one cut of clothes and gives one kind of stump speech. One would think that after the last eight years of an antagonistic White House, all the pro-life leaders would be ready to pull together. A mere glance at the number of Supreme Court justices who will soon be retiring should wipe away any guilt about the practical politics of the next election.
There are times when avoiding to speak out on life issues for strategic purposes would raise doubts about a candidate. This dilemma makes it all the more necessary for pro-life candidates to create solid, back-channel connections to pro-lifers through their leadership. This leadership should be told, in detail, what policies will be pursued after power changes hands. Of course, there are no guarantees in politics, either for the candidate who holds his cards close to his chest or for the one who lays them on the table.
Cohen assumes that the very existence of a political strategy as such evinces a compromise of principle, but it may be that the development of such strategies is evidence of the political maturation of this pro- life generation. And Cohen’s miscalculation leads to a mistake at another level as well: “You cannot tell me that most of the candidates now in the field would deny an abortion to a 15-year old daughter, one month pregnant and constantly crying. Maybe at five or six months, they would take a stand. At eight or nine certainly…. But in the early stages? Forget it.”
Politics aside, here is where Cohen’s understanding of principle fails him: Having principles means practicing what you preach when it affects you, and your family, in a personal way. The coming year will show that Cohen, and others who misunderstand principle, underestimate both the savvy and the commitment of the pro-life candidates and their constituencies.