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SCOT LEHIGH

The GOP’s big tent collapses

THE TODD AKIN controversy over “legitimate rape” and faux biology has done more than just give the Republican Party an acute case of campaign collywobbles.

It has also pulled back a flap to provide a revealing peek into the party’s “big tent.” Surely you remember that time-honored rhetorical tarp; it was supposed to be roomy enough for a variety of different viewpoints on abortion.

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Now, truth be told, the big tent was always something of an artificial construct. What it really seemed to signal was not a party-wide recognition and acceptance of differing viewpoints on abortion, but an uneasy accommodation: Prochoice Republicans would be welcome in the GOP as long they didn’t put up too much of a fuss about the party’s antiabortion stance.

Still, there at least used to be discussion of the different points of view. Some past GOP platforms made a nod to disagreement among Republicans on the subject, and past conventions certainly saw dissent on the issue.

Bill Weld, for example, spoke out for abortion rights at the 1992 convention and even pushed for a floor debate on the platform’s antiabortion language. Weld wasn’t allowed to speak about abortion rights at the 1996 convention. But as a concession to dissenters, the GOP platform that year did include an appendix including the views of prochoice Republicans.

But this year, as in the last several cycles, the GOP’s proposed platform position is for a complete ban on abortion. Under the “human life amendment” it supports, there would be no exceptions for rape, incest, or the life of the mother.

In other words, for the exceptions presumptive nominee Mitt Romney says he favors.

It’s unclear whether Romney made any effort to have his position become the GOP platform stance. And certainly one can make too much of a party platform. It’s a symbolic statement, not a binding policy document.

And yet, that document and the Akin controversy do show just how far right Republican thinking has evolved on abortion. The GOP has expressed outrage over his notion of “legitimate rape” and his assertion that women seldom become pregnant as a result of rape. But the party has not disavowed the notion that a woman pregnant from a rape should be compelled to carry the pregnancy to term. Quite the contrary. Unless amended, its platform will embrace that notion.

It has been easy to dismiss that kind of thinking as confined to extreme social conservatives. And yet, consider: In January, Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator, opined that a pregnancy that results from a rape, though horribly created, is nevertheless “the gift of human life,” that a woman should “accept what God has given to you,” and that the “right” thing to do is to carry the pregnancy to term. Santorum, let’s not forget, emerged as Romney’s main rival for the GOP nomination.

Now Romney has chosen as his running mate a man who also thinks a woman pregnant as a result of a rape (or incest) should not have access to abortion. Thus we now have the interesting spectacle of Paul Ryan trying to distance himself from . . . well, himself, by arguing that regardless of his position, Romney’s view would determine policy.

Perhaps. Yet on abortion, Romney has been a weather vane, not a lighthouse. Longtime Romney observers no doubt recall watching Romney rebuke Ted Kennedy for calling him “multiple choice” on abortion during a 1994 debate. An indignant Romney declared that he had favored abortion rights since 1970 and vowed that “you will not see me wavering on that.” But as soon as Romney caught Potomac fever, he executed a politically opportunistic flip-flop.

Faced with the unexpected attention to abortion, Romney has done what he usually does when his position conflicts with that of the GOP’s right wing: He has tried to change the subject. But as House Republicans have demonstrated in the last two years, changing the subject doesn’t mean changing the conservative policy-making focus.

Thus the question becomes: If voters deem the abortion exceptions important, is it realistic to think that a President Romney would stand up for them? And the best answer is that anyone depending on Romney to uphold the last remaining corner of a collapsing big tent is putting hope over history.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on twitter at @GlobeScotLehigh.
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