Bush's second chance.

Author:Arkes, Hadley

Out of this nettle, danger, we pluck this flower, safety (Henry IV, Part 1). The sense of relief, felt so deeply in the pro-life community on November 3, 2004, seems to have drifted away in the weeks and months since the presidential election. It is already easy to forget how great a threat the election posed: even the most sober observers of the political scene recognized that a Kerry presidency would mark the end of any prospects for the pro-life cause in Congress or the courts. Some pro-life conservatives were on the threshold of concluding that the issue of abortion had been lost beyond retrieval, that the return of an administration unrelievedly pro-abortion would be a terminal event for the pro-life cause. For such an administration would show no inhibition in its willingness to solidify the right to abortion with every executive order, every appointment to the courts, and even in international conventions, where it would use the United Nations to endorse, at every turn, "reproductive rights." At the same time, the ground would have been prepared, in stages, for the installation of same-sex marriage by the courts. There would have been a decorous interval, of course, as the public had to be prepared and led, step by step, but so certain did the outcome seem last fall that many conservatives, not at all fainthearted, were coming to the conclusion that this issue, too, had been lost.

On the morning of November 3, however, those threats seemed to have been swept away. Eleven states voted on constitutional amendments that would confine marriage to a man and a woman as husband and wife. The amendments passed in all eleven states. The gay activists thought they had the best chance to prevail in Oregon, a liberal state, regarded by many as the most "unchurched" state in the union. But the cause of gay marriage lost there as well, with 57 percent of the voters making it clear that even a liberal state would mark limits to the reach of gay rights. The election brought a surge in Republican strength in the Congress, especially in the Senate. Suddenly the means were at hand to overcome the filibuster that had blocked conservative candidates for the bench. Not only were there five more Republicans in the Senate, but they brought a firming of conviction and confidence on the pro-life side.

And so, on the morning after the election, when the clouds lifted, the political landscape that came into view was startling. A cultural drift, seemingly inevitable, had been halted. In fact, the country now seemed at a turning point. The question was whether the political class, or the Republican party, could summon the art or the nerve it needed in order to make a breakthrough of their own in the possibilities that were suddenly open to them.

On the issue of marriage, the deeper meaning of the election was grasped at once by gay activists. The American people had become quite tolerant and accommodating on the matter of homosexuality, willing to avert their eyes and withhold their censure. But they drew the line at marriage, and that line had significance beyond the immediate controversy. Edmund White has been writing about the gay scene since the 1970s; he now teaches creative writing at Princeton. In an interview about a week after the election, he recalled his conversations with gay friends in Princeton as they surveyed the results of the referenda. It seemed jarringly clear to them that the vote involved more than marriage: their fellow citizens had cast a judgment on their way of life; voters were marking the border of their willingness to withhold judgment. The issue of marriage had claimed an importance even for gays who had no intention of getting married themselves. For it was another step in the recognition of gay and lesbian sex as just another style of sexuality, on the same plane of legitimacy as heterosexual unions. The defeat of gay marriage was a sobering jolt, a sign that ordinary people had come to the limit of their willingness to be badgered into acceptance and to have their children catechized in a new view of the moral world.

President Bush, for one, seemed to grasp the import of these returns and the critical moment at hand. He indicated, soon after the election, that his party would press on again to amend the U.S. Constitution for the sake of securing marriage. Some Republicans may be altogether too ready to declare that the point has been tellingly made in the elections this past November, and so there is no need to go further, by amending the Constitution. But that would be a grave mistake, and a failure to act precisely when the public has been primed to act.

On the matter of abortion, however, the President did not seem to be seized with any comparable sense of moment, or any heightened awareness of possibilities now come into sight. And yet, in the case of abortion, the new possibilities had already been visible for more than two years. The President showed no keen awareness of these possibilities now, just as he had shown no awareness earlier. It was not that the facts were not there to be seen, or that the President had no means of knowing. For at least two years the White House staff, and the President it advises, had ample reason to conclude that America had reached a turning point, and that, with the slightest moves on the part of the administration--moves so slight that they did not require the exertion of an executive order--they could have produced some striking gains for the pro-life cause while fostering a deep crisis in the ranks of their adversaries. With moves modest by any measure, Mr. Bush could have advanced the pro-life cause and propelled the Democrats in Congress into an internecine war that would surely have torn them apart, and left them morally exhausted during the season of the campaign. That the President should have had no interest in inducing such strain among his adversaries, at virtually no cost to himself, must be ranked among the great political mysteries of our time. But apparently more pressing than any desire to sow confusion among his adversaries has been the President's desire to preserve his reticence on the matter of abortion.

To deepen the enigma, this reticence on the part of the President has persisted even while he has assembled an administration filled with pro-lifers at virtually every level, including the White House; an administration that is probably the most pro-life of any that has been constituted since Roe v...

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