A Different Republican Party; Supreme Court Decisions Influence New Stance on Social Issues

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), July 1, 2003 | Go to article overview
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A Different Republican Party; Supreme Court Decisions Influence New Stance on Social Issues


Byline: Tod Lindberg, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Historians will mark the administration of George W. Bush as the point at which the so-called social issues, long a galvanizing feature of American partisan politics, finally lost their sting. The Supreme Court's rulings upholding diversity as a compelling government interest and striking down the remaining state anti-sodomy laws join the early Bush administration decision allowing stem-cell research to go forward. The trinity (as it were) of decisions leave those whose top priority has been the preservation of a certain traditional public morality now essentially voiceless in electoral politics. The Republican Party has moved on.

Just to review the importance of the now barely remembered stem cell decision: The real political question here was whether the Bush administration would continue to accommodate the wishes of the pro-life movement within the GOP. Politically, it would have been both simple and expedient for a Republican administration to turn down stem-cell research altogether. The link between the research and its precondition, namely aborted fetuses from which stem cell lines can be cultivated, is obvious.

The administration was cleverer than that. I don't know if it was Mr. Bush's intention from the outset to break the back of the pro-life lobby in the GOP, but that was the effect of his decision to allow research on currently existing cell lines but not on new lines cultivated from additional fetuses. Although the Catholic Church remained opposed, Mr. Bush won support for his decision from a number of evangelical Protestants who had for years been prominent in absolute opposition to abortion. He split the pro-life community, in effect ending its veto on party positions related to abortion. A pro-choice GOP vice presidential candidate is now conceivable, for example, something that has not been true for a generation.

I think the two Supreme Court decisions will be similar in effect. They are not, to be sure, administration decisions. But that is not the point. The real question is whether the Bush administration and the Republican Party more broadly will continue to contest these issues or simply let them go.

We should start with the composition of the Supreme Court itself. Seven of its nine members were appointed by Republican presidents. Three of those, of course Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justices Scalia and Thomas are consistently "conservative," whether one takes that term in the popular sense of right-leaning or more properly in the sense of embracing a constitutionally circumscribed view of what the Supreme Court should be deciding. But why aren't there seven conservatives on the court? The answer is that even staunchly conservative presidents have a very difficult time figuring out what their appointees will do once they get life tenure on the bench and final say on important matters of law and policy.

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