The Republican party, like all political parties, is not monolithic; it is a coalition of people who may or may not agree with each other on many issues but are willing to support each other on those the others care about for mutual benefit. But from time to time, one issue comes along that makes holding a party’s coalition together very difficult.
The classic example is slavery. In the 1850s, the Democratic party in the north essentially collapsed, as northern Democrats could no longer support their members in the south, who were adamantly opposed to compromise on slavery. The other major party at that time, the Whigs, tried to straddle the fence – not defending slavery, but fearful of condemning it forthrightly, lest they lose votes in the South.
As abolitionist sentiment rose in the north, the Republican party came into existence on an explicitly anti-slavery platform. The Whig party disappeared.
The closest analogy to slavery in modern American politics is abortion; indeed, anti-abortion forces often make an explicit connection between the denial of “personhood” to both slaves and unborn fetuses.
The issue has been an important issue in American politics since at least 1973, when the Supreme Court decided that the right to an abortion is guaranteed by the Constitution. Previously, abortion was not a federal issue but one that the states decided for themselves.
In the years since, those who would prefer to return to the status quo ante have largely coalesced in the Republican party. As their support within that party has grown, anti-abortion forces have pressed ever harder for it to take an absolutist position on the issue – no legal abortions whatsoever even in cases of rape or incest.
According to polls, this is an extreme position not shared by most Americans. By and large, the Republican strategy has been to pay lip service to anti-abortion extremists – lots of rhetoric, little legislative action. This is necessary because many Republicans, especially middle class women, strenuously oppose the extremist position and would abandon the party on that issue if they thought it would actually attempt to ban abortion altogether.
The fault line has long been an exception for rape and incest, which most people consider reasonable. But the extremists cannot abide that. To them, abortion is murder and making any exception means sanctioning murder.
On 19 August, Congressman Todd Akin of Missouri, who is the Republican party’s nominee for the US Senate this year, focused attention on this fault line by stating in a television interview that abortion should be prohibited even in cases of forcible rape, which he foolishly called “legitimate rape.”
On August 21, the Republican Party’s platform committee, which is meeting in Tampa, Florida, in advance of next week’s party convention, adopted a plank endorsing an amendment to the Constitution that would ban all abortions without exceptions.
These events will almost certainly make abortion a major issue in the presidential campaign. Clearly, this will be to the disadvantage of Republicans, who would prefer to continue their practice of appealing to anti-abortion extremists without endangering the votes of women and other members of the party likely to bolt if forced to accept the extremist position.
The attention on abortion also prevents Republicans from focusing the campaign on the economy, which is Barack Obama’s weakness. But given the power of anti-abortion extremists within the Republican Party, it may be impossible to finesse the issue that matters most to them this year and could tilt the election toward Mr Obama.