The Patronage Game

The playbook of one of the 20th century‘s pre-eminent patronage hacks, George Washington Plunkitt of Tammany Hall, goes like this: “I seen my opportunities and I took ’em.” It also could be the slogan of the anti-abortion right these days. The campaign to reverse abortion rights is moving fast to gain whatever it can from a political synchronicity -- GOP allies running the White House and both houses of Congress, and an increasingly friendly federal judiciary -- that has not occurred in 30 years and may not occur again.

For President Bush, the 30th anniversary of Roe v. Wade is a time of both payback and peril. The payback is to the religious right, a constituency that never fully trusted Bush‘s once-upon-a-time pro-choice father, and a constituency that W. has leaned over backward to keep in his corner. The peril is that in doing so he has made a devil’s bargain that will drive moderate voters -- especially women -- to abandon him just as they abandoned Bush pere.

This political balancing act -- plus the current Supreme Court‘s stubborn insistence that the right to abortion is settled law -- means that the reproductive-rights debate in the coming months will be conducted on seemingly tangential terrain. In the Senate, incoming Majority Leader Bill Frist -- who holds a 100 percent favorable voting record with the National Right to Life Committee -- is expected to support a ban on “partial birth” third-trimester abortion procedures.

Frist and the White House hope that third-trimester abortions will amount to an acceptable degree of regulation to many pro-choice voters. It’s also deliberately pitched to see how far the Supreme Court will go in permitting regulation of abortion; some states‘ third-trimester bills have already failed in the courts. Similarly, the House will revive legislation making it illegal to take an under-18 woman across state lines to evade parental-notification laws, and another bill that will add penalties for assaulting a fetus if a pregnant woman is attacked. All of this legislation matters precisely because it avoids a direct assault on Roe, instead broadening the parameters of regulation or establishing new fetal rights that could be seized upon by a more friendly Supreme Court.

Alongside this focus on the margins of abortion regulation, the administration and its allies are going well beyond abortion to challenge the entire culture of reproductive health and sexual rationality. Bush’s Department of Education is promoting “abstinence only” sex-education programs based on a curriculum defining the only “normal” sexual activity as within the confines of heterosexual marriage. The Centers for Disease Control have removed from their Web site information about the use of condoms in preventing HIV transmission. The administration blocks family-planning and HIV-education funding at the U.N. It‘s all part of the same patronage game, finding ways to pay back social conservatives that will fall beneath the radar of most voters.

At the heart of the strategy, of course, is the federal judiciary. In 1992, the Supreme Court dashed the hopes of a generation of anti-choice conservatives by reaffirming the central tenets of Roe -- thanks to the emergence of Sandra Day O’Connor and Anthony Kennedy in the pro-choice camp. Today‘s court counts only three solidly anti-abortion votes: Chief Justice William Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. For the court to fully swing against abortion requires a change of two votes -- but between the elderly liberal Republican John Paul Stevens and the possibility of a recurrence of cancer in O’Connor, that‘s not impossible to imagine. In the meantime, the right is playing for time by packing the appellate tiers of the judiciary, hoping at a minimum that the courts give wide latitude to regulate abortion into inaccessibility.

The last time the anti-abortion right played for such stakes was the heyday of the Reagan administration. In those years, however, the House and Senate still included a solid bloc of liberal and pro-choice Republicans -- politicians like Connecticut’s fiercely pro-choice Senator Lowell Weicker (defeated in 1988 by Joe Lieberman, with support from anti-choice conservatives), or New York‘s Jacob Javits. Today the ranks of GOP dissenters are thin, and they’re moderates rather than fire-eaters on civil liberties.

Thirty years after Roe, abortion rights now face their most sophisticated and strategic challenge. The question is whether this new anti-abortion strategy -- ducking and weaving around Roe while hemming in with a flurry of law and regulation everything the reproductive-rights movement stands for -- will fall over the tripwire of a still solidly pro-choice electorate. If the code words fail, Bill Frist will face the same backlash as Trent Lott, and president number 43, to whose presidency anti-abortion patronage is central, may fall as hard and fast as 41.


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >