Should abortion doom Giuliani’s campaign?

Ramesh Ponnuru, in a National Review article not available online, argues that it should. The article seems directed at what Ponnuru calls “the party’s swing voters on abortion” who are “pro-life, but not vehemently so, and [who] 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.” This is the group to which I belong.
The Giuliani case to “swing” Republicans is that presidents can’t do much to affect abortion policy except appoint judges, and that Giuliani is just as conservative as the other candidates when it comes to judges. It is this case that Ponnuru wishes to take down.
His first argument is that having a pro-choice Republican president is bad for the pro-life movement regardless of any concrete steps such a president might or might not take on the issue. He contends that, even as a majority of voters favor banning abortion altogether or banning it with rare exceptions, the nation’s elites have tried to impose a consensus that the issue is settled. This effort has failed so far only because the Republican party has stood against this consensus. Ponnuru believes that the nomination of Guiliani would signal Republican capitulation.
Ponnuru is also skeptical about claims that Giuliani’s judicial nominees would make him indistiguishable (other than symbolically) from other Republican presidential hopefuls on the abortion issue. First, Giuliani has already said, in effect, that his ideal judge would be as likely to uphold Roe as to overturn it. Second, “by moving the politics of abortion to the left, Giuliani’s nomination would move the politics of judicial confirmations to the left.” Thus, a nominee like Samuel Alito “with a history of hositility to Roe and no extravagent show of respect for it in his confirmation hearings, would seem more extreme than Alito in fact did.” Finally, even if Giuliani’s Supreme Court nominees did cause Roe to be reversed, a Democratic Congress might send him legislation to codify Roe. Ponnuru is not confident Giuliani would veto it.
Ponnuru may be overstating the extent to which Giuliani’s election and/or nomination would constitute a reversal for the pro-life cause, but there’s little doubt that the pro-life cause would be better served by nominating a pro-life candidate. The question for swing Republicans is whether nominating Giuliani presents potential advantages that overcome this reality.
There are two such potential advantages to a Giuliani nomination: he might offer more than his rivals on other issues and he might be more electable. As to the first, Ponnuru argues that despite Giuliani’s obvious strengths, it’s far from clear that he would be a better leader than his rivals. Ponnuru is probably right. I regard Mitt Romney as equally capable of providing strong leadership in the war on terror and on our domestic priorities. For that matter, it’s difficult to gainsay John McCain leadership qualities.
As to electability, Ponnuru’s main argument is that nominating Giuliani, even if it produced victory in 2008, would “damage the [Republican] brand.” He notes that social issues like abortion have been a major strength for Republicans, and backing away from that strength now would be a long-term mistake, even if it produced victory in 2008.
I’m not persuaded that nominating Giuliani in 2008 would hurt the party in the future. Republicans would have time to “right” the party, as happened after the first President Bush supported new taxes. Given that we’re in the middle of the war on terror, I think swing Republicans should seriously consider supporting Giuliani if there’s good reason to believe that he’s the only candidate (or the only candidate other than McCain) who can lead the party to victory.
At this point, it’s too early to make that assessment. But if by the end of the year Giuliani is running, say, 10 percentage points ahead of Clinton and Obama, while Romney and Fred Thompson are running 10 percentage points behind, swing Republicans will have good reason to support Giuliani.
Even at that point, however, we should be cautious. Ponnuru’s piece may well be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to anti-Guiliani sentiment among hard pro-life Republicans. Polls taken in January 2008 may not reflect the exent to which that sentiment will hold sway in November (not to mention the potential for Guiliani to self-destruct or for revelations about his personal life to gain traction). I hope that by the end of the year Mitt Romney or Fred Thompson will look about as strong as Giuliani for purposes of the general election, thus eliminating the need for these kinds of calculations. But I’m not counting on it.
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