There's a comic element to the political two-step that John McCain, Mitt Romney, and — to a lesser degree — Rudy Giuliani all have had to perform of late. It goes like this: Once-moderate Republicans who, in past lives, have either said nasty things about evangelicals (in McCain's case), echoed Ted Kennedy's views on abortion rights (in Romney's), or, heavens, shacked up with a couple of gay men while estranged from his wife (that would be Giuliani) now have to prove to GOP primary voters that they're really, truly socially conservative. It's proving a tad awkward.
But dance they do. This month, McCain told a flock of South Carolina Republicans that Roe v. Wade "should be overturned" — reversing statements he made back in 1999 — and recently began touting abstinence-only education in public schools. Romney has frantically disavowed his record as a pro-choice, pro-gay rights governor of Massachusetts. Giuliani seems less willing to budge, still claiming to favor abortion rights and civil unions, but lately he has reversed his previous opposition to a "partial-birth abortion" ban and has promised to nominate "strict constructionists" to the Supreme Court. (Wink wink.) More backpedaling may follow.
None of this is surprising. Conservative religious voters dominate the GOP primary, and they've always demanded that candidates pledge to defend and uphold the fetus at all costs. But what should outsiders — social moderates and liberals — make of all of this? Over the years, some pundits have suggested that McCain, to take one example, is merely pandering to the nuts on the right and is still a moderate at heart. "Go ahead, senator, flip-flop away," my colleague Jonathan Chait once wrote of McCain. "I know you're still with us at heart." Or take Slate's Jacob Weisberg, who argued that McCain has only "temporarily turned into a performing elephant." The idea seems to be that, if elected president, he'll show his real self again and tell the religious right to bugger off.
But that's wrong. In all likelihood, it won't matter what these candidates truly believe deep down in their hearts. More than a few conservative and evangelical groups are now freaking out and demanding that these three explain their "wayward" pasts. But they probably don't need to fret. If any of these Republicans survive the primary and get voted into the White House, they're almost certain to pursue a social agenda that's as conservative as George W. Bush's. They won't, after all, have a choice.
The campaigns of Romney and McCain resemble nothing so much as that of George H.W. Bush in 1980. The elder Bush had been moderately pro-choice for decades, but he was forced to "wholeheartedly" support Ronald Reagan's platform before being brought aboard as a vice presidential candidate. Once he made the pledge, he never backed down. As president, 10 of his 44 vetoes were abortion-related — including a bill that would've extended Medicaid funding to poor women who were victims of rape or incest. He supported a constitutional amendment banning abortion. And he made every effort to nominate Supreme Court justices who would overturn Roe. (True, David Souter didn't work out so well, but that wasn't for lack of trying.) It didn't matter what he had once believed; he couldn't afford to anger his most loyal supporters.
Would the current crop of supposedly "moderate" Republicans act any differently? It's difficult to see Giuliani supporting a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage or abortion. But McCain, for his part, has consistently supported measures to criminalize abortion over the years — NARAL has given him a zero percent rating, and, in 1987, he voted to confirm Robert Bork, who would've meant a fifth vote on the Court to overturn Roe — so he seems like a safe bet on this score. Romney could probably go either way. In any case, this is beside the point. The sweeping legislation and constitutional amendments that the religious right would like to see passed have zero chance in what's likely to be a Democratically controlled Congress in the near future.
Indeed, it's better to focus not on big-ticket items that face strong resistance, but on smaller-bore policies. The Bush White House has been instructive in this respect. For the past six years, it has tossed bone after bone to its evangelical backers: a "global gag rule" that has severely hampered family-planning centers abroad; AIDS funding that is channeled toward abstinence-only programs; federal funding for abstinence-only education in schools; federal funding for pregnancy crisis centers that spread disinformation about abortion; legislation like the "partial-birth abortion" ban; political appointees at the FDA who needlessly hold up approval of emergency contraception; and appointees to agencies that oversee reproductive health funding who are rabid opponents of family planning. These are all of great importance to the religious right, but they're essentially non-issues to the broader public. It's hard to imagine that any of the current Republican front-runners — McCain, Romney, or Giuliani — would want to provoke a fight with the base over these matters.
And then there's the Supreme Court. In all likelihood, the next president will get to choose a replacement for the aging John Paul Stevens — and, therefore, to decide whether or not there's a fifth vote on the Court to overturn Roe (not to mention a host of other decisions). If it comes to that, a President McCain or President Romney or President Giuliani, facing reelection in 2012, will be ill-positioned to buck his most fervent supporters and nominate a moderate justice. The safe bet is that even Giuliani, the most socially liberal of the bunch, would get behind someone like Samuel Alito — which is exactly what he's promising now.
Of course, predictions are always difficult this far out, and one can envision potential scenarios in which these so-called moderates prove less socially conservative than the current president. For one, both Giuliani and McCain support increased federal funding for stem-cell research, and, barring a change of heart, they would probably support what is increasingly a high-profile and popular issue. Moreover, if Giuliani somehow manages to win the GOP nomination while clinging to his current positions on social issues, he could be in a strong position to buck the base as president. It's certainly possible. After all, secular voters are growing as a share of the electorate. And the nation is moving leftward on many social issues, largely thanks to young voters who tend to be socially liberal, suggesting that future Republican presidents may have more leeway on these issues.
On the other hand, the Republican Party itself has grown increasingly conservative on social issues over the past decade. As Tom Schaller points out in Whistling Past Dixie, this has happened because the party's core base of support is being increasingly confined to white evangelicals in the South. The 2006 midterms only accelerated that trend, as moderate Republicans in the Northeast lost their seats to Democrats. Depending on the makeup of Congress, even Giuliani may have trouble defying the center of gravity in his party. Either way, the personal beliefs of these three Republicans will be largely beside the point. Structural factors matter most for presidents — and the safe bet there is on a move to the right.
By Bradford Plumer
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