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 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.
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.