Principle over Politics? The Domestic Policy of the George H. W. Bush Presidency

By Richard Himelfarb; Rosanna Perotti | Go to book overview
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Discussant: Bill Green

To me, it’s ironic that both Ronald Reagan and George Bush followed the same lifetime path on the abortion issue, and yet with considerably different consequences. It appears that for neither of them was it a great lifetime moral issue. Reagan, as governor of California, signed a health care bill that provided generous funding for abortions, but then, of course, ran on a right-to-life plank the two times he ran for president. George Bush ran as a pro-choice candidate in 1980, but then, as a faithful vice president and a candidate in 1988 and 1992, was in the right-to-life camp. I’m not aware that either Reagan or Bush experienced an epiphany, a great religious conversion, on the road to the White House, and therefore I, for one, assume that their changed positions on abortion—however genuinely felt at the ends of their careers—simply represented initially decisions as to what would advance those political careers.

The point I shall make in this paper is that Reagan was lucky in that decision, Bush less so. The reason Reagan was lucky was that, by the time he was running for president, the country had reached not a consensus but a deadlock (a temporary one to be sure) on the abortion issue. Roe v. Wade had established that women had a right to have abortions, but the Hyde Amendments were passed by heavily Democratic congresses, and the bills to which they were attached were signed into law by a Democratic president, Jimmy Carter. Moreover, prior to the 1980 election, such funding denials had been upheld by the Supreme Court, which ruled in Harris v. McRae that the Hyde Amendments were constitutionally valid.

Thus, no one saw President Reagan’s election as having much impact on the abortion issue. Hyde Amendments would continue to pass, as they had under President Carter, but abortion would be safe thanks to Roe v. Wade. Indeed, the big women’s issue at the 1980 Republican Convention in Detroit was the party’s abandonment of its traditional support of the Equal Rights Amendment, not abortion. Yes, President Reagan did push the abortion issue a bit further—most notably in connection with family planning, both abroad in the Mexico City policy and domestically with the so-called gag rule relating to the Title X family planning program. But Mexico City affected only people who could not vote in U.S. elections—namely, foreigners—and the “gag rule” was deferred until after the 1988 election by court challenges so that it was not high on the screen politically. As a result, abortion was not a major issue in 1988. It became significant only once, when the morning after one Bush-Dukakis debate the Bush campaign hastened to make it clear that Bush did not believe in wholesale imprisonment of women who had abortions.

My impression of the political situation on the issue in 1988 is that much of the electorate was accurately described by one of my House colleagues, who generally voted pretty much as I did but who consistently voted right-to-life. When I asked

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