Just How Big Should Our Tent Be?

Should the Republican Party be a "big tent"? Arlen Specter, among others, recently claimed that the tent was getting a bit tight for him to stay inside. I don't know that anyone is actually arguing in favor of a "small tent," but some do believe that we are better off with a smaller yet more focused Republican Party.

Yet a Republican Party narrowly focused on social conservatism will have a tent so small that few converts will come inside. I fear that it would be like a much larger but still too tiny to matter Libertarian Party -- from which emanates some bruising and pointed arguments between the "incredibly small tent" and the "infinitesimal tent" activists.

A Republican Party that stands for almost everything will be like John McCain's campaign, with similar results -- the base had little enthusiasm, except for Sarah Palin.

But do we really need to make a choice? Sometimes. But now we should focus more on common ground.

Let's look at abortion. The "big tenters" insist that pro-choice Republicans should feel comfortable here. The more pure factions? Pro-choicers dilute the message and make pro-lifers less inclined to work for Republican candidates. Well, I have a startling piece of news from a recent Gallup poll: there are actually very few pro-choice Americans of any party.

If you look only at labels, it appears that Americans are pretty evenly split: 51 percent call themselves "pro-life" and 42 percent say they are "pro-choice." But when asked if abortion should be legal under "any circumstances," "only under certain circumstances," or "illegal in all circumstances," only 23 percent answered "legal under any circumstances." (That position is actually quite extreme even compared to Roe v. Wade, which granted substantial authority to the states to regulate second and third trimester abortions.)

An astonishing 75 percent of Americans believe that the government should either prohibit abortion or limit it. Thus, 75 percent of Americans are "anti-choice." Almost half of the self-described "pro-choice" are actually in favor of governmental limits. The 26 percent of "pro-choice" Republicans likely break down to approximately 15 percent for abortion on demand and 11 percent who want limits (perhaps allowing abortion for rape, incest, or severe fetal defects).

I suspect that much of the 22 percent of Americans who support a complete ban on abortion would regard the "certain circumstances" crowd as, at best, inconsistent -- and they have a good point. I would suggest, however, that instead of calling the "certain circumstances" crowd hypocrites, pro-lifers should adopt the following approach:

Gee -- with these guys on board, we can't stop all elective abortions, but we can work on trying to stop at least half of the hundreds of thousands of abortions each year.

Emphasizing our common ground against Democrats is a win for both the "no abortion" and "certain circumstances" factions, because both agree that there should be fewer abortions. Unlike the Democrats -- who talk about keeping abortion "safe, legal, and rare" but never get around to working on "rare" -- our coalition is prepared to make abortion, if not rare, at least less frequent. By comparison, a small tent Republican Party won't make any dent in the abortion rate at all.

The "big tent" crowd also needs to think about their antipathy towards the social conservatives. A majority of Americans finds something disturbing about abortion -- at least some abortions. Partial-birth abortions? Yucky. Abortion because your wedding dress wouldn't fit as well? Yucky. Yet a majority accepts abortion for some really troubling situations: the 13-year-old impregnated by an adult, a fetus who is going to die an excruciating death soon after birth from Tay-Sachs Disease. There is clearly a widespread moral objection to abortion as backup, or sometimes primary, birth control. The "certain circumstances" crowd may not agree with the pro-lifers about the absolute immorality of abortion, but they do see it as morally troublesome.

There is a point where differences are too large to be worked out by looking for common ground. But we should be careful that the desire to achieve moral focus does not cause us to exaggerate our differences and drive out Republicans with whom we could work to achieve some of our goals. The alternative is that they will work with Democrats to achieve their common goals -- and leave us alone in a tent too small to influence public policy.