COMMENTARY | Ever since Senate candidate Todd Akin’s famous “legitimate rape” comment and the ensuing battle over the abortion platform position in the Republican Party, a host of articles have come out about the historical differences between the nominees and their party planks.
The dominant theory is that while the Republican Party has always opposed abortion, even for cases of rape and incest, it’s a different story for party nominees. Many winners of the Republican Party primary process, like Mitt Romney, have tended to support exceptions to rape. But it wasn’t always that way. The split between nominees and their party platforms actually began in 1989.
After Roe v. Wade, Gerald Ford did not take a clear position on the issue. But Ronald Reagan did, in his bid to rally conservative causes in 1976, coming close to dethroning Ford. Four years later, Reagan prevailed on a human life amendment policy that looks very much like GOP Party Platform today. It was strengthened in 1984.
But for George H. W. Bush, it was a different story. He ran on a more liberal stance on abortion. Reagan almost did not accept Bush as his vice-presidential nominee, until Bush adopted Reagan’s position. Sure enough, Bush Sr. ran with that position all the way to the White House in 1988.
And that’s when the big change occurred. Militantly pro-life Republicans like New Jersey Congressman Jim Courter and Virginian J. Marshall Coleman both were beaten in winnable gubernatorial races in 1989, all because both withered under attacks from the pro-choice crowd, for not even allowing exceptions for rape and incest.
It was immediately after both defeats that Bush Sr. met with several Republican congresswomen on the issue of abortion. In 1990, he barely mentioned the issue on the campaign trail. By 1992, he had adopted a stand of allowing exceptions to abortion in the case of rape and incest, a party position adopted by Bob Dole in 1996, George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004, and John McCain in 2008.
Yet during this time, the Republican Party platform on abortion remains as opposed to exceptions as ever. So why has the media only now picked up on this disconnect?
Some of this is because GOP vice-presidential nominees have fully backed the Reagan policy. Dick Cheney opposed abortion even in cases of rape and incest, as did Sarah Palin long before she became a nominee. Some of this is because Democrats have chosen to take a militantly pro-choice stand, rather than pick apart this argument. And the incendiary line “legitimate rape” is a more recent concoction.
Mitt Romney appears to have adopted the same policy as his predecessors, allowing for the rape and incest exceptions to abortion. And while his running mate Ryan co-sponsored the bill with Akin, he too is moving closer to Romney’s position. The GOP nominees learned back in 1989 what some on the platform committee haven’t figured out. Not allowing for exceptions to abortion in the case of rape and incest could cost a candidate an election.
John A. Tures is an associate professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga.