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Losing the Life of the Party
August 21, 2001

In the midst of the summer news slump, today's Washington Times managed a stunning pronouncement nearly eclipsed by more prominently-placed stories about shark bites and alligator attacks. In the final paragraph of his final page piece, Tuesday regular Tod Lindberg writes, "The pro-life predominance in the GOP is over." Not waning or weakening. Over.

Once upon a time, the GOP was a pro-life party that periodically made concessions. In the words of Roberto Duran's famed eighth-round concession, "No Mas." The GOP of today is a centrist party without a consensus on abortion, much less a conviction that the right to life remains a core value. President Bush's recent compromise on stem cell funding spotlighted that shift.

The morning after he announced his decision, Mr. Bush scored the mild headlines coveted by any moderate president handling a prickly issue. By approving some level of funding, he came off as agreeable, but by drawing limits, he was able to appear temperate. Nothing negative or extreme.

The real news came the morning after the morning after. National Right to Life supported the President's decision. A number of other prominent pro-life groups denounced it. And the papers were eager to report the rift. There was no official position on stem cell research coming from the pro-life community, much less a unified opposition front. With the Right in disarray, the President was able to ride through the middle in a coup of considerable import. "If Mr. Bush can issue as high-profile a decision as this one coming out where he did without arousing the opposition pro-life movement in its entirety, or even its majority, then in making this decision Mr. Bush may well have broken the back of the pro-life lobby as a political force in the GOP," wrote Lindberg.

In the age of compassionate conservatism, the pro-life movement, once a dominant interest group in the Republican caucus, is viewed as a fringe element populated with radicals. Unschooled in centrist sophistication and inelegant in its litmus language, the movement no longer merits a seat at the grown-ups' table. Unlike prescription drugs and social security, abortion has become one of those tedious subjects political realists no longer discuss; the old passwords have changed.

Pro-lifers are left with two alternatives: get along or move along. The get-along crowd still calls itself pro-life though it apparently planned to issue the same laudatory press release whether the President came out for or against stem cell funding. The rest hold to their standards but no longer sway their party because they're drowned out by the voices inside the Big Tent.

The moral of the story is this: In the game of political pressure, clout is not born of compromise. When pro-life stalwarts decided they would rather have friends in high places than remain people of high principle, they handed their inter-party opponents an easy win. Once a few chose allegiance to party line over the issue that had animated them, the movement was no longer a cohesive group with an agenda demanding action. Instead, it was a subset of a party that no longer prioritized unborn life.

The pro-life movement failed to learn that lesson, so, at least for now, Lindberg is right. Pro-life predominance in the GOP is over -- and it's not just the fault of a President trying to please all the people or a party struggling to swim in the mainstream. Credit for their political demise lands squarely on pro-lifers' doorstep, and sadly, most have yet to notice.

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