Well, I’m here on the beautiful campus of Stanford University, home of the Hoover Institution where I am a media fellow (though not a medium-sized fellow). It it’s a huge campus, probably visible from space. The sun sets on the Stanford golf course (yes, they have a golf course) a good half-hour before it sets on the Rodin gardens (no, I am not referring to the guy who fought Godzilla and lives on Monster Island). As I wade through this rich ethnic cocktail comprised largely of Asian kids who doubled my SAT scores and dodging the bike riders who whiz by, their differential calculus textbooks propped on the handle bars, I find it difficult to get passionate about events in Washington (I also can’t help feeling like my college was Camp Mohawk to Stanford’s Camp Northstar).
This is a common phenomenon for people who spend too much time in Washington; the further you get from Washington, the cliché goes, the more you realize how little Washington matters. I think everybody in Washington says something like this when they’ve come back from what most of us call “real America.” And while I agree with the principle — I am a conservative after all — it’s still a bit misleading. I am sure that when nuclear-power plant employees go on long trips, they also think that things back at the office aren’t as important as they seemed. That’s human nature. But that doesn’t mean that if the guys back home start flushing uranium down the toilets no harm will be done. And if Ashcroft is denied confirmation, Bush’s presidency will go a long way down the toilet too.
That’s simply a strategic evaluation on my part. Will Ashcroft be the greatest attorney general ever? Who knows? But after the Florida recount and the Chavez immolation, Bush absolutely needs to win this fight. That much is obvious.
Another strategic observation that is glaringly apparent as I watch these hearings is that Republicans must overturn Roe v. Wade (for a disheartening analysis of Ashcroft’s discussion of Roe click here).
Now, I almost never write about abortion, for a number of reasons. One of the chief ones is that it elicits scads of e-mails from pro-lifers who want to either dragoon me into their services or from pro-lifers who want to scream at me about my lack of commitment to the issue.
A lot of pro-lifers want to overturn Roe for the same reasons that most abortion advocates want to keep it; they think Roe is the only thing blocking an absolute ban on abortion. That’s nonsense. If Roe were overturned, abortion would still be legal. There would be no run on wire hangers and young women from Bryn Mawr and, er, Stanford would not be handcuffed to radiators by preachers in order to guarantee they bring their babies too term. In fact, on the day after Roe was toppled almost nothing would change, except perhaps in a few to a few dozen states legislatures would start considering restrictions on some procedures, banning others, and so on.
Women in almost all of the “blue” areas where Al Gore won would still be able to use abortion as birth control. Indeed, many of them would still be able to enjoy the joyous civil liberty of murdering eight- and nine-month-old babies on a whim. In the most mobile and affluent country in the world, brimming with socially active women in open-toed shoes, even the poorest women would get bus tickets to abortion mills in our more enlightened cities.
There is this grand mythology in the United States that prior to Roe there were millions of back-alley abortions and millions of deaths from them and if we repealed Roe almost overnight perfectly content women would be dragged back into those same alleys once again. That’s all propaganda. As is the idea that the abortion issue hurts the Republican party or that most Americans are pro-choice as defined by NOW and Planned Parenthood. Most Americans are in fact pro-life, if by that you mean they are opposed to partial-birth abortion and the rest. Indeed a Los Angeles Times poll found last year that 54% of Americans favor banning abortion outright, or with the exception for rape or incest.
But, for the purposes of this conversation, let’s put aside the propaganda and the moral issues and talk about tactics. The inestimable Kate O’Beirne has long argued that the only thing the Democratic party is uncompromising about is abortion, or sexual rights, and affirmative action. Everything else can be negotiated or surrendered like Paris in the face of meager German aggression. Just look at Joe Lieberman. Sure, he had to recant his positions on things like school choice and Social Security reform, but he would have been automatically vetoed as a VP pick if he’d been pro-life.
But even if you include the environment, tort reform, union hackery, and all the other second-tier orthodoxies of the Democratic Left, the only one that can be toppled overnight is Roe. The racial divide cannot be closed by government and racialists cannot be persuaded by reason. The environment is an amorphous and open-ended concept.
And, when I say Roe, I don’t mean abortion. That will be around for a long time, as will many of the issues in its orbit, like fetal-tissue research, cloning, genetic selection, and the rest. But Roe — which was just plain godawful law and everyone knows it — can be overturned with the right mixture of political deftness, media savvy, legal aggressiveness, and outright chutzpah.
As I said, if that happens, abortion will not go away. It’s only in the movies that with magical incantations and Supreme Court rulings, we make things disappear. But, it’s my guess that the combination of an American public already prepared to restrict abortion considerably, the propensity for democratic compromise in our 50 states, and the steady progress of science would combine to deflate the centrality of the issue in American politics to a staggering degree. This would happen if for no other reason, abortion radicals would be forced to fight a national anti-abortion mood and the inconvenient fact that their dire predictions didn’t pan out — almost entirely in state capitals. Take away the federal role in abortion law and you knock a leg out from under the one-legged Democratic party, making politics more interesting, America more, not less, free and, oh yeah I almost forgot, you’d do the right thing.