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June 18, 2013 11:10 AM Different Tune On Abortion Way Off the Table

By Ed Kilgore

It’s interesting that on the very day Bobby Jindal published his ukase ordering an end to the GOP rebranding project with all its “navel-gazing” and “bedwetting,” one of the conservative voices associated with “rebranding,” WaPo columnist Michael Gerson, argued forcefully that the convictions and passions of the Christian Right should not be on the table for revision or rejection:

The fundamentalist approach to reforming the GOP — an oversimplified Reaganism, advocated in the tone of Barry Goldwater — would only hasten the decline. It is an appeal to an electorate increasingly confined to Republican primaries.
But parties generally don’t get to reformulate their appeal from scratch. While Republicans can’t win with their base alone, they also can’t win without it. Religious conservatives, for example, are the single largest constituency within the GOP, and compose about a quarter of the entire electorate. Such voters are not baggage thrown overboard to lighten the ship; they are planks in the hull.
So the Republican Party is left with a challenge: It needs to become more socially inclusive without becoming socially liberal.

Gerson almost immediately made it clear that the “stable, pro-life convictions” of the “base” were the still point in a turning world, and entirely non-negotiable.

Now that’s fairly unsurprising in itself, given Gerson’s own identity as a religious conservative. But it helps explain a phenomenon that seems to baffle a lot of Beltway observers at the moment: the noisy and purely symbolic (insofar as there is zero chance it will lead to an actual change in laws) House GOP effort to pass a presumably unconstitutional bill banning abortions occurring after 22 weeks of pregnancy, which is expected to culminate in a floor vote today.

Now this is the sort of stunt that people outside the conservative movement and a handful of Republican Establishment types consider pure folly. That’s also the view of secular libertarians who think the Christian Right is an archaic obstacle to the transformation of the GOP into a party seamlessly committed to limited government. But within the conservative movement and most of the GOP elected official class, the effort to overturn abortion rights as they’ve existed for the last four decades is a great unifying force shared by “rebranders” and “standpatters” alike. Yes, they may disagree on tactics now and then; even within the antichoice movement itself, there is a deep and persistent conflict between those who want to “broaden the coalition” by focusing on late-term abortions or “sex-selection” abortions or some other relatively marginal issue that happens to poll well, and those who want to advance openly radical goals like the “personhood” initiatives.

But all the public and private wrangling over rape and incest exceptions and the exact prioritization of anti-choice efforts in the conservative agenda should not obscure the underlying unity of the Cause and its integral nature to the Republican Party as it exists today. I would have been surprised had the House not debated and passed an abortion bill in the wake of the passage of similar legislation in Republican-controlled states and the immense excitement aroused in antichoice circles by the Gosnell case, the latest event that is supposed to arouse the consciences of the “good Germans” who are slow to grasp that legalized abortion is the “American Holocaust.”

Republicans are as likely to “moderate” on this issue as they are likely to suddenly embrace progressive taxes or collective bargaining rights. You can argue all day long as to whether Republican “elites” actually want to ban abortion or are cynically manipulating the poor Bible-thumping yahoos who man the barricades and lick the envelopes (or send the emails) for the GOPs. But in the end, it’s so central to the party’s identity that it’s not about to be “rebranded” into compromise or obscurity.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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