The Magazine

Let's Make a Deal

Social conservatives, Rudy Giuliani, and the end of the litmus test.

Mar 12, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 25 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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Next year may see the party of the Sunbelt and Reagan, based in the South and in Protestant churches, nominate its first presidential candidate who is Catholic, urban, and ethnic--and socially liberal on a cluster of issues that set him at odds with the party's base. As a result, it may also see the end of the social issues litmus test in the Republican party, done in not by the party's left wing, which is shrunken and powerless, but by a fairly large cadre of social conservatives convinced that, in a time of national peril, the test is a luxury they cannot afford. For the past 30 years of cultural warfare, there has been only one template for an aspiring president of either party with positions that cross those of its organized activists: Displeasure is voiced, reservations are uttered, and soon enough there is a "conversion of conscience" in which the miscreant--Dick Gephardt, Al Gore, George Bush the elder, even the hapless Dennis Kucinich--is brought to heel in a fairly undignified manner, and sees what his party sees as the light. The Giuliani campaign seems to be departing from this pattern. And this time, a pro-life party, faced with a pro-choice candidate it finds compelling on other grounds, is doing things differently. It is not carping or caving or seeking a convert. Instead, it is making a deal.

One has to wend one's way back through the litmus test saga to see just how big this could be. In 1980, the parties for the first time took radically opposed views, with a plank in the Republican platform calling for a constitutional amendment to ban all abortion, while the Democrats (over the protests of President Carter) insisted abortion should be not only legal, but funded by taxpayers. Four years later, these planks, and the lobbies that backed them, were fully entrenched. By 1988, top tier candidates in both parties had undergone forced conversions; and in the 1990s, both sides attacked their dissenters full bore. In 1992--The Year of the Woman--Democrats famously silenced pro-life Pennsylvania governor Bob Casey at their New York convention, parked him up in the bleachers where no one could see him, and gave his slot to a pro-choice Republican. Four years later, pro-life groups pulled Republican nominee Bob Dole through a knothole, torturing him for a week before denying his suggestion that an expression of "tolerance" for those who dissented be inserted into the plank. As late as 2003, the Democratic candidates began their campaign season with a joint appearance at a NARAL fiesta, all eight of them tugging their forelocks before the group's leader and pledging allegiance, while a repentant Gephardt begged her forgiveness for the pro-life views he had been so ill-advised as to utter two decades before.

With this in mind, it was no minor matter when a small number of conservatives began to float ideas about how Giuliani and the party's activists might all get along. As early as August 2004, from the Republican convention in New York, David Frum was dispensing helpful suggestions: "He should not try to deny or conceal his own views," he wrote of the mayor. "He should not invoke Lee Atwater's 'Big Tent' . . . nor should he spend minutes and minutes parsing his views. . . . His job is not to persuade pro-life Republicans to agree with him, but to assure them that they can live with him." The Powerline blog weighed in in June 2005. "Some pundits think [Giuliani's] views on the social issues will bar him from getting the nomination," wrote Paul Mirengoff. "I disagree. . . . There is a national, largely bipartisan consensus that issues like gay marriage and abortion should be decided democratically, and not by the courts. If Giuliani emphasizes the process issue, and says . . . the key question is whether such issues are to be decided democratically, by legislatures, or autocratically, by judges, he could forge a solid Republican majority." National Review recalled a precedent. "The late Sen. Paul Coverdell," its editorial stated, "supported legal abortion. But once he won his primary, pro-lifers supported him since he promised to vote to ban partial-birth abortion, oppose public funding of abortion, and support conservative nominees to the judiciary."