Following the Supreme Court's dramatic 5 to 4 ruling striking down Nebraska's partial birth abortion ban in Stenberg v. Carhart, George W. Bush got caught without a thesaurus. Condemning the decision, Bush proclaimed that states should be allowed to enact laws "particularly to end the inhumane practice of ending a life that otherwise could live."
More specifically, Bush said, "I hope to be able to come up with a law that meets the constitutional scrutiny." Though we've come to expect these marble-mouthed episodes from the Texas Governor, in this case Bush's declamatory awkwardness may signal a deeper discomfort. After all, less than a month away from this summer's upcoming Republican National Convention -- where abortion would have been an edgy issue anyway -- the last thing Bush needed was a pro-choice ruling from the court. He got two: The same day as Stenberg, the justices also voted 6 to 3 to uphold a Colorado law requiring protesters to keep at least eight feet away from women entering abortion clinics.
These decisions may have the strength to upturn the centrist balancing act Bush had been attempting. Following the ruling, conservatives scattered into different camps and began lobbing contradictory advice at their candidate. Witness the splinter tactics:
The Texas Chain Saw Strategy. Some on the right have turned to gross-out tactics in protesting the Court's decision. Conservative columnist Tony Snow favored readers with this description of a partial birth abortion: The doctor "plunges scissors into the base of the child's skull, opens the cranial cavity, inserts a tube, sucks out the brains, collapses the skull and yanks out the limp corpse."
For avoiding such colorful language, Bush has already begun to get flack from hard-core gore types (lower case g). The National Review's Ramesh Ponnuru and Ben Domenech conclude, "If Bush deserves sympathy for the politically difficult position in which the Court put him, it must also be said that he did not rise to the occasion." Which brings us to a related strategy:
Spew Wildly Overblown Assertions. A morning-after column by the right wing (but usually smarter than this) George Will praised Justice Antonin Scalia's comparison of the Stenberg decision to 1857's infamous Dred Scott ruling (in which the Supreme Court endorsed slavery) and to the Court's decision approving the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.
In other extremisms, the Weekly Standard's William Kristol trumpeted that if Al Gore becomes president, constitutional law will become "an instrument of the left's social and cultural agenda." Kristol makes the twisted argument that (framed carefully) Gore's position on abortion appeals to more Americans than Bush's. Therefore, Bush should be "preemptive" by hollering his unpopular position now -- something like issuing a press release about those hash bashes in college rather than letting your opponent leak the story. Others are yanking Bush in the opposite direction:
Keep Quiet and Hope it Blows Over. Some Republicans, notably former party chairman Richard Bond, have expressed the hope Bush will lay low in the wake of Stenberg, especially since Al Gore has immediately gone on the attack. And Bush has already said that he admires Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, both of whom supported the Nebraska ban, as role models for high court appointees. "This is the worst news that the Bush campaign could get," Republicans For Choice chairwoman Ann Stone told the New York Times. Then there's a mumbling subgroup:
Keep Quiet and Hope Bush Will Still Consider You for Vice President. If this news is bad for Bush, it's even worse for New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman and Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge. In 1997, Whitman vetoed a bill similar to the Nebraska "partial birth" ban, and for one of the same reasons cited by the court majority: It did not contain an exception to protect the health of the mother. Aside from a brief mention in her interview on Hardball, Whitman has kept quiet; Ridge, who is pro-choice but supports a "partial birth" abortion ban, has been completely tight-lipped.
Similar, but not quite the same as the "Keep Quiet" crowds are those who are trying to:
Feign Helplessness. While publicly advising Bush not to engage Gore in a back-and-forth about Supreme Court appointees, former Republican chairman Richard Bond also asked, "What can a presidential candidate do about a Supreme Court decision?" (See Bush's repeated assertions that he has no control over the Texas death penalty for a model.)
Finally, there's denial:
Proclaim Victory. Many conservatives have snidely cheered the Supreme Court decision, crowing that it gives Congress and the states guidelines for writing a bill that will pass constitutional muster. They argue that such a bill -- banning only the controversial "dilation and extraction" procedure and containing provisions to protect the health of the mother -- could be just the thing to reunite Republicans. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde of Illinois warned that the court's opinion in Stenberg will be "studied intensely."
As conservatives study, liberals can sit back and watch Bush stammer while his allies tear him apart.