Will the Republicans Abandon Pro-Lifers?

Since Mitt Romney went down in flames last November, there have been demands, mostly from the left, that the GOP “re-examine their divisive policies” in order to broaden their ballot-box appeal. The New York Times recently advised the party to move “much further from its extremist tendencies” to achieve that end. In other words, if the GOP is to survive it must abandon its pro-life, pro-traditional-family values.

Such outbursts are not new. In fact, every time the GOP has lost a national election in modern times it has been characterized as on the edge of extinction for clinging to conservative principles.

In November 1964, after Senator Barry Goldwater was creamed by President Lyndon Johnson (61 to 38.5 percent), James Reston of the Times wrote, “Barry Goldwater not only lost the presidential election but the Conservative cause as well. He has wrecked his party for a long time to come.” The GOP’s “real leaders” (a/k/a liberal Rockefeller Republicans) were called upon to “build anew.”

Because up and coming GOP stars like Ronald Reagan refused to surrender to the left, the party picked up forty-seven Congressional seats in 1966, plus three in the Senate, and eight governorships.

Two years later, Richard Nixon, running on a socially conservative platform, beat Democratic Hubert Humphrey in the race for the White House. And in 1972 Nixon trounced leftist George McGovern, carrying forty-nine states.

Despite the cries from the mainstream media and academia in 1964 that the GOP was out of touch, in four short years they were able to put together a winning coalition. Interestingly, a key component was middle-class and inner-city ethnic Catholics, who felt alienated by the Democratic Party’s elitist ideology and the constituents it embraced.

Nixon was perceived as the protector of the interests of these second- and third-generation ethnic Catholics while the Democrats were perceived as cultural elitists who scorned them. This explains why in 1972 Nixon was the first Republican to receive a majority of Catholic votes.

In 1976, after President Gerald Ford narrowly lost to Democrat Jimmy Carter (49.9 percent to 47.9 percent) there were, once again, calls that the GOP ditch the agenda of social conservatives, particularly opposition to abortion.

What most pundits missed, however, was that Gerald Ford lost precisely because he was squishy on issues that mattered to Catholics.  While Reagan forces imposed a pro-life plank in the 1976 GOP platform, Ford was mute on the subject in the campaign and his wife, Betty, was a vocal proponent of a woman’s right to choose.  Also Ford upset anti-Communist ethnic Catholics during the presidential debate. Discussing the Helsinki Accords, which legalized Soviet Control of the so-called Captive Nations, he said, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and never will be under a Ford administration.”

As a result, Carter received 57 percent of the Catholic vote to Ford’s 42 percent.  Analysts agreed that Catholic defections had cost Ford the election.

President Nixon and Pope Paul VI

Four years later, Ronald Reagan, running proudly on a pro-life platform, beat Carter handily receiving 49 percent of the Catholic vote to Carter’s 42 percent and third party candidate John Anderson’s 7 percent.  In 1984, Reagan won 49 states and racked up 61 percent of the Catholic vote.

An important reason why GOP standard bearers lost their presidential races in the post-Reagan era (George H.W. Bush ’92, Robert Dole ’96, John McCain ’08, and Mitt Romney ’12) is that they did not understand that cultural issues matter and were either embarrassed by or could not articulate pro-life and traditional family arguments.

In order to placate liberal GOP governors (Christine Whitman of New Jersey and William Weld of Massachusetts)Bob Dole back-pedaled on the pro-life platform plank in 1996, saying platforms don’t matter much, and that abortion “was only a moral issue.”

McCain in 2008 and Romney in 2012, unlike their shared opponent, Barack Obama, were deathly afraid to talk about social issues. This led to losses in tightly contested swing states (i.e., Ohio, Florida, and Pennsylvania) where disenchanted older practicing Catholics stayed home on Election Day.

George W. Bush, on the other hand, managed to win the White House twice precisely because he ran as an unabashed social conservative. He was not embarrassed to defend in the public square the rights of the unborn or his Christian beliefs.

So here we are in 2013. And many in the Republican hierarchy are once again listening to the left and “soul searching.” Last month, Republican Party chief Reince Priebus released a 98-page study he commissioned that calls on party members to show greater tolerance on social issues, particularly on gay rights and same-sex “marriage.”

Republicans do need to re-examine some positions, particularly on the immigration problem.  (Senator Rubio is the right guy to lead such reform.)  But any compromise with the Democratic social agenda would be disastrous.

Just look at the condition of the Republican Party in my home state of New York.

During the past twenty years, New York Republicans abandoned long-time constituencies, particularly Catholics, in an effort to appeal to liberal voters.  In the state legislature they supported: gay rights, same-sex marriage, bias-crime bills, financing of abortions, and restricted medical insurance “conscience clauses” for religious institutions.

The results:  the party has lost every state-wide election since 2002 and has lost its long-time control of the state senate.  Republicans have proven to be nothing more than useful idiots for lefties who have been laughing up their sleeves.

After Richard Nixon lost the 1962 California governor’s race, owing to a split in the GOP’s conservative base, he concluded that while Republicans can’t win with just the support of the right wing, they also can’t win without it.  Similarly, in our time Republicans can’t win without the support of pro-lifers and Catholics.

So, as the GOP struggles to devise plans to expand its voting base, it best not offend or marginalize these core constituents.  If it does, it’s headed for the ash heap of history.

George J. Marlin, Chairman of the Board of Aid to the Church in Need USA, is the author of The American Catholic Voter and Sons of St. Patrick, written with Brad Miner. His most recent book is Mario Cuomo: The Myth and the Man.