Politics & Policy

Testing the Limits

What's so terrible about "litmus tests"?

The phrase “litmus tests” has negative connotations. It smacks of regimentation and intolerance. But we should be careful, when we see the phrase used, not to let the connotations do our mental work for us.

The phrase gets thrown around carelessly in the abortion debates, with activists on both sides — but typically those on the pro-life side — accused of “imposing a litmus test” on candidates. Which means what, exactly? Only that some people have the nerve to prefer candidates who agree with them on the issues that they care about.

Nobody thinks it’s intolerant for anti-tax activists to work to win elections for candidates who pledge not to raise taxes, or for labor leaders to withhold support from candidates who vote for free-trade deals. But for some reason, when pro-lifers engage in this type of normal political behavior something sinister is afoot.

Noemie Emery is capable of writing about abortion politics without resorting to such insinuations. In a recent essay in The Weekly Standard, the closest she comes to the usual tropes is a passing reference to how pro-lifers “tortur[ed]” Bob Dole in 1996 over the language of the party platform. Dole wanted to change the language; pro-life groups didn’t; and the members of the platform committee sided against Dole. So he didn’t get his way. It wasn’t torture. (And contrary to the former senator’s delusions, placing a comma somewhere else in the platform would not have saved his campaign.)

But while she largely avoids the usual traps in writing about litmus tests, Emery is too quick to declare, and to celebrate, its demise. She believes, although she hedges the claim at the start of her essay, that the Giuliani campaign has ended the pro-life litmus test for the Republican nomination: He is running well in the polls, and some social conservatives are receptive to his candidacy. But if that’s enough to show that the litmus test has ended — if we can declare it over before a pro-choice candidate has actually won the nomination, or even a primary — then Colin Powell’s near-candidacy in the fall of 1995 already ended it.

If she is too quick to declare the end of Republican litmus tests, she is wildly premature in declaring the end of Democratic ones. “[T]he Democrats also are starting to change,” she writes, before conceding, “They are not yet at the point of nominating a pro-life candidate on the national level.” No kidding. She goes on, wishfully: “Someday, they too may find a candidate whom they find attractive — say, for irony’s sake, a Bob Casey Jr. — except for this single and glaring impediment. And at that point, they too might deal.” Sure, they might. But let’s not get carried away by Casey’s election. The number of pro-life Democrats in the House and Senate is far below what it was 20 years ago.

Since all of these “mights” have taken us to the realm of speculation, I’ll note that my own guess is that pro-life and pro-choice voters will cease to care about the views of presidential nominees only when the politics of abortion is de-nationalized: which is to say, after Roe v. Wade has fallen.

Emery ends by estimating the “costs” of the litmus test:

It has been a very good deal for the people who imposed it, but a very bad one for the country at large. It has meant that a candidate for national office must begin by embracing ideas that have been rejected by seven in ten of Americans, while a candidate who comes close to the center of public opinion would never be allowed to compete. It has made candidates for the post of commander in chief of the world’s greatest power kick off their campaigns by groveling before leaders of interest groups, which does not make them seem leaderly and causes voters to lose all respect. Worst of all, it posed the real possibility that a candidate would come forth who seemed equipped to deal with a crisis, but who, because he held the “wrong views” in the eyes of the interest groups, would not be allowed to emerge.

Well. How many leaders have pro-life primary voters really deprived us of? If Colin Powell had run, he might very well have won; and might have gone on to be a not-so-great president. Was Ronald Reagan really disabled from handling crises because pro-lifers agreed with him? Was the first George Bush?

The current incumbent believes that we should work toward making abortion illegal with exceptions for rape, incest, and threats to the mother’s life. Polls indicate that this position, far from having “been rejected by seven in ten of Americans,” is itself a centrist position. Besides, there’s no rule that says that political platforms in a democracy must always reflect the preferences of the median voter. Whether it would be good or bad for a platform to reflect that voter’s preferences in a particular case must surely depend on the merits of that case.

No cost-benefit analysis is complete if it looks only at costs, as Emery does. What have been the benefits of the pro-life “litmus test”? It has kept open a question that the courts, among others, have repeatedly and arrogantly tried to declare closed. It has helped to promote policy changes that have brought the abortion rate down. It has made the Republican party a more conservative party across the board; and it has furthered a campaign to restore the judiciary to its proper place in the constitutional scheme of things, a campaign that would have gotten nowhere without it.

None of that means that pro-life voters must continue seeking pro-life candidates for president for all time, or that they should try to block the nomination of Giuliani. But pro-lifers should not be gulled into thinking that accepting a pro-choice nominee would be costless.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.


The Latest