The GOPÕs War on Women
If the news from the New Hampshire primary came as a shock to anyone besides the Republican establishment, it was the swelling ranks of pro-choice Republican women.After almost a quarter century of hearing Pat Buchanan ventilate on the subject of women, they knew that Bob DoleÕs TV attack ads in the Granite State hardly did justice to his upstart Republican rival. Ever since 1970, when Vice President Spiro Agnew, goaded on by his acid-tongued young vice-presidential speech writer, slammed New York senior Sen. Charles Goodell as "the Christine Jorgensen of the Republican Party," GOP women have known the sting of Pat BuchananÕs sexually charged rhetoric.After his New Hampshire victory, Buchanan did not disappoint. He noisily strutted his divisive anti-abortion, anti-feminist stuff. In Gila Bend, Ariz., days after the New Hampshire vote, Buchanan compared pro-choice forces to the "evil empire" of communism. "The abortion industry is built on the same lie..." he told cheering supporters. "...The simple ideas that human beings have no intrinsic value." Buchanan did not stop there. He vowed to select a "pro-life" running mate and appoint Supreme Court justices "who will overturn that abomination called Roe vs. Wade." In one glandular burst of rhetoric, he righteously declared that securing the "right to life is more important than being president."Not surprisingly, other candidates goaded him along. Dole used every chance to remind voters of BuchananÕs glaringly sexist comments. "Women are simply not endowed by nature with the measure of single-minded ambition and the will to succeed," intoned a Dole TV ad dredged-up from a 1983 Buchanan column. Although his sister and campaign manager, Bay Buchanan, insisted that her brother has long since admitted the statement was a "mistake," Buchanan nonetheless kept up the drumbeat, vowing before TV cameras that he would be "the most pro-life president in the history of this country.BuchananÕs narrow victory has had a chilling effect on politically aware, pro-choice women. "If Buchanan is nominated," declares U.S. Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-6th District), a longtime pro-choice advocate among Congressional Republicans, "there are many Republicans who will publicly refuse to vote for him." She adds: "Buchanan has done us a favor by forcing us to reconcile our positions on womenÕs rights. He has thrown the issues forward in a way that faces the party starkly with the possibility of division.""These people are really up a creek," says Eunice Groark, a former Republican and pro-choice independent who served as lieutenant governor under Lowell Weicker. "This Dole-Buchanan split will cause a huge split at the convention this summer," she predicted. "There are a lot of women concerned about this." In South Carolina and the rest of the New England states, including Connecticut, where primaries or caucuses will be held in coming days, Pat BuchananÕs extremist views on womenÕs issues may cut just as deeply as his far-right protectionist and anti-business stances in his battle with Bob Dole.The Buchanan campaign may be able to distance itself from the candidateÕs more outrageous past remarks, but it cannot so easily blur BuchananÕs past as a prominent architect of a right-wing strategy that has cowed the Republican Party for the past 20 years into seeking success at the polls at the expense of American women. In a new book, The Republican War Against Women: An InsiderÕs Report from Behind the Lines (Bantam, 1996), Tanya Melich, a longtime GOP activist, feminist, wife and mother, charges that the Republican Party has wielded "a misogynist strategy" against women for most of the past two decades in reaction to feminist advances in civil and reproductive rights.Melich bolted the party in 1992, disgusted by President BushÕs capitulation to the religious right and party extremists like Buchanan. She was joined by many other women whose pro-choice views turned the tide for Bill Clinton in 1992. With ClintonÕs victory, an electoral gender gap that first emerged in presidential politics in 1980 seemed to come into full flower: 46 percent of women cast their ballots for Clinton, compared to 41 percent of men. Pollster Peter Hart now expects "a gender gap of historic proportions" in the 1996 presidential race. MelichÕs detailed account of internal Republican party machinations during the Reagan-Bush years goes a long way toward explaining why. War Against Women paints a damning portrait of the partyÕs increasingly self-defeating adoption of an anti-women strategy calculated, much like President NixonÕs "southern strategy" against blacks in the 1960s, to play on the conservative backlash against feminism and advances in civil rights for women.Not surprisingly, two of the major players in MelichÕs political war on women are now the partyÕs frontrunning presidential candidates -Ñ Pat Buchanan, who is by all accounts only marginally electable, and nominal party leader Bob Dole, who appears to be over the hill and out of gas. Buchanan, in his incarnations as a columnist, TV commentator and revolving-door Republican insider, has been the more aggressive of the two in pressing the partyÕs radically anti-women views over the years.Dole, who once supported the Equal Rights Amendment, has played a more passive role, tailoring his instinctive moderation to accommodate the born-again extremist wing of the party. That has meant a series of commitments that are likely to undercut his sudden pledge to save the party from Buchanan and the religious right. The truth is, right-wing forces threatened to hijack the party long before these events -Ñ with DoleÕs acquiescence.One result is that now even Dole, whose wife, Elizabeth Hanford Dole is as much a professional woman and Washington insider as Hillary Rodham Clinton, faces a credibility gap with women that is turning into a "chasm," as the Wall Street Journal recently put it. According to a Journal/NBC News poll in January, if the election had been held in December, Dole would have lost to President Clinton among women voters by a gaping margin of 36 percent to 54 percent, compared to 44 percent to 45 percent among male voters.BuchananÕs early surge, besides throwing the party leadership into a tailspin, has sounded the alarm for Republican women voters. Once viewed as the well-coifed, cut-out paper dolls of American politics, mainstream Republican women now have the opportunity to play a historic role in selecting a nominee at the GOP national convention in San Diego this summer -Ñ if they choose to fight back in the political guerrilla war that has been waged against them for the past two decades.If they choose not to, as has happened so often in the past, it is likely that far more than the 17 percent of Republican and independent voters that voted for the Clinton-Gore ticket in 1992 will cross over for the Democrats in 1996.A quick glance at the index of The Republican War Against Women turns up 14 references to Buchanan and 22 to Dole. But both Buchanan and Dole have been deeply entrenched in the creation of a contemporary Republican political party with a reputation for badmouthing all but the most traditional, get-along, go-along women. Since both candidates have been party stalwarts since the pre-Watergate years, each in his own way has ridden the larger waves within the party to get where they are todayÑmost notably, the religious right.Each also has been hip deep in the partyÕs purposeful exploitation of the backlash against feminism since the 1970s. In the immediate aftermath of Watergate, with the party badly wounded, the Republican right wing, coalescing around the anti-abortion politics of the Catholic church and the excesses of the 1960s counterculture, the civil rights struggle and the anti-Vietnam War movement, found a convenient political target in women.Their spokesman? None other than Pat Buchanan. Noting "a deep, fundamental split on the political right," Buchanan extolled "a diverse army of political have-nots," including "Republicans who believe that conflict, not compromise, is the essence of politics." Continued Buchanan: "The liberal wing of the Republican Party is a spectator now The civil war in the GOP is between conservatives -- militant and moderate." That may aptly describe the party today. But it also described the political climate before the 1976 Republican Convention in Kansas City that nominated Jerry Ford -Ñ and adopted a resolution calling for a constitutional amendment to ban abortion that subsequently became part of the partyÕs official platform. The sponsor of the anti-abortion amendment was Bob Dole, who was selected by Ford as his vice - presidential running mate largely on the strength of his anti-abortion stance.Dole, writes Melich, had credited his political survival in the post-Watergate years to his "strong right-to-life stance and help from the anti-choice movement. Now he was positioning himself to be FordÕs running mate. A strong anti-abortion position would enhance his ideological credibility with the New Rightists." Despite the partyÕs new anti-abortion plank, expected support for the Republican ticket -Ñ the ethnic Catholic crossover vote -Ñ did not materialize. The Ford-Dole ticket lost to Jimmy Carter, though it retained 51 percent of the female vote. The die may have been cast in Kansas City, but Melich credits the partyÕs adoption of an anti-female electoral strategy to the rise of Phyllis Schlafly in the early 1980s. The devout Chicago Catholic and ideologue who spearheaded fervent opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment, forged her anti-feminist doctrine with the help of the fundamentalist religious right into Republican doctrine after the election of Ronald Reagan. "More than anyone in the party," she writes, "Schlafly shaped the Republican misogynist strategy."Longtime Republican support for the ERA, which had teetered in Kansas City, finally fell at the 1980 Detroit Republican convention. "Our party has endorsed and worked for the ERA for 40 years," declared Mary Crisp, the respected head of the Republican National Committee who was forced to resign under pressure from the New Right. "Now we are reversing our position and are about to bury the rights of over 100 million American women under a heap of platitudes." In the 1980 presidential election, more women voted Democratic than Republican for the first time since such records have been kept.In the middle of ReaganÕs first term, Buchanan swung back into action, this time positioning himself to the right of the president by opposing the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day OÕConnor, a moderate on abortion. Buchanan, characteristically, termed ReaganÕs move "political adultery." "The White House has left the right-to-life movement no choice but to oppose her with all its resources," he declared.The attack on OÕConnor fell flat. But it did not discourage Reagan from appointing Buchanan as White House communications director during his second term. Melich writes that Buchanan used his position to push his anti-female agenda. "Buchanan was not only one of the most vocal, articulate, and extreme of the New Right warriors, he was the most antifeminist. He was soon working his various hostilities into White House statements and ReaganÕs speeches with the same skill and acerbity he had demonstrated as Spiro AgnewÕs wordsmith during the Nixon years."Although Vice President George Bush had embraced the partyÕs anti-feminist agenda, he surrounded himself with an impressive group of pro-choice women, including congresswomen Nancy Johnson of Connecticut, Olympia Snowe of Maine and Claudine Schneider of Rhode Island. Through the 1988 elections, he used them largely to suppress womenÕs issues while he emphasized his famous and short-lived vow not to raise taxes and basked in high favorability ratings. The GOP women had little choice but to sit and watch as a toughened plank on abortion was adopted at the 1988 convention, which they tried and failed to moderate four years later in Houston. In 1988 Dole had squared off against Bush in the primaries, trouncing the president soundly in New Hampshire, but eventually falling by the wayside after refusing to sign a no-new-taxes pledge. The Bush administration showed its own willingness to exploit sexual politics when Vice President Quayle lit out after TVÕs Murphy Brown for having a child out of wedlock.That helped set the tone for the bitterly divisive 1992 Houston convention, in which Buchanan again played a starring role. He began by denouncing the Democratic convention that had just nominated Clinton and Al Gore as "the greatest single exhibition of cross-dressing in American history." Buchanan continued: "There is a religious war going on in this country for the soul of America...And in that struggle for the soul of America, Clinton and Gore are on the other side and Bush is on our side."Egged on by such rhetoric, the convention became a public display of the yawning gulf between the partyÕs mainstream and the religious right, as speaker after speaker pilloried everything from gays and abortionists to Hillary Clinton and godlessness.Melich argues that since 1992 the religious right, which all but dictated the party platform in Houston, has become an "equal partner" with the national Republican leadership in party affairs. The intense discomfort of the mainstream GOP leadership with this state of affairs became painfully apparent last week with BuchananÕs skyrocketing political fortunes. The Republican primary battles that lie ahead will almost certainly determine whether the uneasy marriage continues, or whether the party collapses of its own weight, weakened by its own deep, and increasingly public, divisions.If it does, womenÕs issues will play a central role. Melich, for her part, believes that the philosophical fault lines within the party have become so deep that the party may well defeat itself in 1996 Ñ- and that the catalyst may be the partyÕs pro-choice women and their allies. The reason? Antipathy for Pat Buchanan and the prospect of further accommodations to the religious right by Bob Dole."By focusing on BuchananÕs sexism, itÕs very clear that the Dole campaign has made a decision to go after Republican women," says Melich. "The Dole people think they have a way to hold the women. But they are caught in a bind because the issue that still cuts with conservative and moderate women is the abortion issue. Sooner or later, this thing has got to explode. Buchanan is the lightening rod." In trying to keep pro-choice women under the big tent, however, the Dole campaign must try to avoid mention of the candidateÕs determined and longtime anti-abortion stance -Ñ as well as significant concessions Dole already made to the religious right. A year ago, Buchanan was busy suggesting Congressional hearings to determine when the life of a fetus begins and withdrawing funds from Planned Parenthood. Dole, for his part, announced he would make rescinding the assault weapons ban a legislative priority, reversed his long-standing support of affirmative action goals and even forswore his membership in the Methodist Church to attend more evangelical services.The Senate majority leader also came out for passage of the Religious Equality Amendment, proposed legislation sponsored by Ralph ReedÕs Christian Coalition that even party conservatives believe would blur the constitutionally guaranteed separation between church and state and allow states to encourage school prayer. It is just possible Dole will get away with it. "If you push the political continuum so far to the right, this man may be right of center, but heÕs left of Buchanan," says Melich.It is difficult to imagine Dole moving further to the right while at the same time waving the banner of the mainstream party centrists. Nor can he credibly move to the center on issues like abortion. Even so, if only by the sheer force of a well-organized field organization and a full campaign war chest, Dole, like Bush before him, may get the partyÕs nomination.That does not mean Dole or the Republican Party will get off easily, thanks to the thunder on the right from Buchanan. There are strong signals that Buchanan has inadvertently ignited a smoldering sense of frustration in many loyal Republican women that they have waited far too long for reasoned, sensible policies on essential matters like reproductive rights, child care and equality in the workplaceÑnot to mention, as Johnson and other women point out, rational economic and trade policies.Melich, for one, reports that her book has touched a nerve among women around the country. "Republican women say to me, 'IÕm angry at being ignored. IÕm enormously frustrated,'" she says. Nancy Johnson is even more forthright. "I have been deeply concerned for some time about the Republican leadership compromising fundamental rights without having to take responsibility for it," says the seven-term Connecticut legislator. "My strong message to them is that these divisions on abortion and womenÕs rights are going to destroy our ability to be a majority party. They have been unwilling to take a leadership stand on compromise between pro-life and pro-choice Republicans."I am not disappointed that Buchanan has crested these issues," says Johnson. "If we can work this out, weÕll have a better convention, a better candidate and a better party. If not, the divisions will drag the party down."In the meantime, more and more loyal rank-and-file Republican women will have to decide whether to fight or switch, following the lead of women such as Melich and Groark. As the primary process unfolds, it is likely to become increasingly obvious that Buchanan and Dole are far too steeped in the partyÕs past to have much to offer them.