The Corner

Presidents and the March for Life

Ross Douthat:

The GOP leadership’s disembodied presence at yesterday’s March for Life obviously grates a bit, as it always does. On the other hand, it’s worth noting that the pro-life movement is arguably more popular than the Republican Party these days. So maybe pro-lifers should be thanking Mitt Romney, George W. Bush, et. al. for staying away.

Two comments. First, that “arguably” is there for a reason. Pro-life positions have always polled better than the pro-life movement. My guess is that the percentage of people who look favorably on the movement is still a bit lower than 45 percent of the public that considers itself pro-life (according to the most recent Gallup number I have, from almost a year ago).

Second, the public doesn’t want presidents to be pro-life (or pro-choice) crusaders. Given the politics of the issue, I think it made sense for President Reagan and the first President Bush not to attend the March for Life in person: It would have hurt them, and thus hurt their ability to advance the pro-life agenda in more important ways. By 2001, the political landscape had changed a lot. Even so, I would give the current Bush a pass on not attending the march that took place a few days after he took office. Given the public’s fear of crusading, it makes sense for a president not to make a stop at the march one of his first acts.

In 2002, maybe he could have gotten another pass since it was only a few months after 9/11 (although he ended up making an amazingly risky pro-life statement that year anyway, connected the attack and the assault on the sanctity of life). By 2003, however, he could have started to attend with pretty low political risks. Had he done so, the next pro-life Republican president could make a point of attending routinely. That next president would then probably get a shrug of the shoulders from most voters and even the press. The reaction would be, This is what Republican presidents do. But even so, I’m not sure that a president’s attendance at the march would do much for the cause.

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.

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