It was little noticed that the 2008 Republican platform – I’m not making this up – promised to end all abortions without exception. ~Jeffrey Hart

As I assume Mr. Hart understands, party platforms are as close to truly meaningless documents as one can get in this world, or at least they are if you take them as reliable guides for what the party intends to do when in office. But does the platform say what Mr. Hart claims? Yes and no. Actually, the platform said what the platform has said every presidential election since 1980, which is a statement of support for the Human Life Amendment, and for the last 28 years there has obviously been no concerted effort to pursue the amendment process because there have never been enough votes even under unified Republican government. One might wonder what relevance there is in mentioning a platform plank that has never resulted in any legislation that had a serious chance of passing.

The first paragraph of the relevant section seems worth quoting in full:

Faithful to the first guarantee of the Declaration of Independence, we assert the inherent dignity and sanctity of all human life and affirm that the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed. We support a human life amendment to the Constitution, and we endorse legislation to make clear that the Fourteenth Amendment’s protections apply to unborn children. We oppose using public revenues to promote or perform abortion and will not fund organizations which advocate it. We support the appointment of judges who respect traditional family values and the sanctity and dignity of innocent human life.

Now there are all kinds of things in this statement that might annoy a conservative, but the affirmation of the humanity of unborn children–and support for legal protections of the same–shouldn’t be one of them. Citing the Declaration is rhetorically clever, but this language of guarantee is misleading, since the Declaration doesn’t guarantee anything. It declares. It asserts. Mostly, it complains, but it does not guarantee anything and, in theory, doesn’t have to make guarantees. Then there is that ever-troubling language of rights, but at least here we are talking about affirming legal rights. There is also an irritating nod to the 14th Amendment, and I suppose we crossed that bridge quite a while ago, but then this gets at the heart of the flawed national strategy of the pro-life movement.

A pro-life federalist might find the reference to the 14th Amendment here somewhat troubling, but this is what comes of a movement that models itself more or less consciously on antislavery activists and the civil rights movement. They take their models seriously: states’ rights have been used to deny individuals their rights, they argue, so they cannot now tolerate the possibility that some states could keep abortion legal. In other words, they have accepted the idea that abuse invalidates use, which is something they would not normally accept under any other circumstances. Having turned respect for human life into an abstract universalist commitment, pro-life universalism cannot be reconciled with a genuinely federal solution that would return the matter to the states. The most extreme case of this universalism in action was the Schiavo debacle, when a local, intra-family quarrel was made into the business of state governor, legislature and the Congress in violation of every principle of federalism, separation of powers and respect for the rule of law. Just as the party platform plank offers pro-lifers a symbol that they are being taken seriously, the entire Schiavo episode was an exercise mainly in placating pro-life universalists with a one-time intervention on the assumption that the GOP was not going to do anything substantively on policy that would satisfy them. Typically, moderates find these episodes that actually demonstrate the severe limits on pro-lifers’ influence on policy to be clear evidence that the “fanatics,” as Hart calls them, are in control.

What is so particularly strange about Hart’s use of this plank in damning Palin is that Palin has stated a federalist position on abortion. In other words, she may have been a nominee of the party that affirmed support for the HLA, but her own position at the time was apparently something very different. This was largely lost in the to-do over her inability to name other non-Roe Court cases she disagreed with, but I was surprised by the answer because this sort of answer was normally the sort of thing that earned Republican candidates the wrath of pro-life activists, whose universalist language and explicit rejection of states’ rights in this matter found clearest expression in the primaries in the Huckabee campaign.

While Huckabee had considerable support from many, though certainly not all, Christian conservatives, the GOP cast most of its votes for other candidates in the primaries. Huckabee’s voters nonetheless represent a very large part of the party that is more significant than Huckabee’s vote total would suggest, and Hart is probably right when he predicts that “putting clear blue water between moderate Republicanism and the religious right would undoubtedly give rise to a third party, a breakaway Christian Party.” What is unclear is why Hart or any of the other bemoaning the role of Christian conservatives in the party think that the breakaway party would be smaller than the “common sense, Eisenhower” wing once all the evangelicals and ethnic white Catholics that came over to the GOP in the ’70s and ’80s either returned to the Democrats or joined the breakaway party. As near as I can tell, the moderate plan for victory is to try to cast out social conservatives and become the party of all the remaining Episcopalians, Californians and New Yorkers who prefer lower taxes (or whatever it is that this reduced GOP would embrace).

The 1948 example is misleading–the Democrats had been the dominant party for almost twenty years at that point, and their voting coalition was already so large and diverse that they could afford two challenges from both left and right and still win the presidential election. The GOP does not now and has not since the 1920s commanded the reliable support of a coalition that large, so a splintering of the party along religious and cultural lines would leave the moderates in the position of a rump that would probably quickly go the way of the Whigs. What this scenario does seem likely to guarantee is enduring Democratic rule.