In modern politics, the "single issue voter" gets a pretty bad rap. He is seen as unrealistic and intellectually myopic, a disservice to his party and, ultimately, his cause. Politics, after all, is about pragmatism; it is the art of the possible, and no thinking person allows themselves to be guided by their feelings on one single issue.
Of course, this is pure bunk. Anyone with a basic grasp of the ideological identities that characterize modern American society know that there are certain "hinge" issues that tend to serve as electoral litmus tests for many voters. A woman's "right to choose", for example, is the political sacred cow for the Liberal, well-educated urban feminist demographic. For those who identify with the gay community, a candidate's position on same-sex marriage is often of central import. For the Hispanic community it might be issues involving immigration policy, for African Americans, matters of race relations. And of course, there are certain political viewpoints that are assumed by all to be non-negotiable. A candidate who embraced discrimination based on race, sex, or religion, for example, would be roundly condemned by all side of the political spectrum and deemed disqualified from running for office, regardless of their intellectual or political qualifications.
For those Americans whose political identity is guided by their belief in the sanctity of life, a candidate's position on abortion is often the make-or-break question. To this end, the pro-life nonprofit Susan B. Anthony List challenges conservative presidential candidates to sign a pro-life leadership pledge as a means of assuring voters that their commitment to defending the sanctity of life is paramount. Specifically, the pledge addresses four key issues related to presidential leadership:
FIRST, to nominate to the U.S. federal bench judges who are committed to restraint and applying the original meaning of the Constitution, not legislating from the bench;??SECOND, to select only pro-life appointees for relevant Cabinet and Executive Branch positions, in particular the head of National Institutes of Health, the Department of Justice, and the Department of Health & Human Services;
THIRD, to advance pro-life legislation to permanently end all taxpayer funding of abortion in all domestic and international spending programs, and defund Planned Parenthood and all other contractors and recipients of federal funds with affiliates that perform or fund abortions;
FOURTH, advance and sign into law a Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act to protect unborn children who are capable of feeling pain from abortion.
Three GOP presidential candidates have, for one reason or another, refused to sign the pledge. They are Mitt Romney, Herman Cain, and Gary Johnson. Mr. Cain has clarified that his reticence has nothing to do with ideological opposition and everything to do with his understanding of checks and balances. Johnson has identified himself as pro-choice, so no surprise there. But then there is Governor Romney. As he is the presumed favorite, pro-life voters have a lot to consider.
And this is where the "single-issue" voter stigma comes into play. Republican pundits eager to set aside social issues in favor of economic matters will dismiss the kerfuffle over the pro-life pledge as an unnecessary and divisive distraction, and Liberal groups will cite the controversy as the latest example of the GOP's slide into extremism.
In reality, there are very serious, very legitimate reasons for pro-life conservatives to question the leadership suitability of a candidate who is not willing to commit to Susan B. Anthony List's pledge. Foremost, a candidate's easy dismissal of pro-life matters for reasons of pragmatism or nuance, or whatever the reason, calls into question his fundamental belief about the sanctity of life. Life is either sacred or it's not. Life either begins at conception and should merit the full protection of the law as such, or it doesn't and shouldn't. Any refusal to elevate the importance of right-to-life issues by necessity trivializes them.
Of equal importance are the constitutional implications of a candidate's view of the abortion issue. It is the general conclusion of those who adhere to a strict constructionist view of the Constitution that Roe v. Wade represents the most egregious example of judicial activism in American history. It was a case of pure judicial fiat, in which "emanations" and "penumbras" were fabricated and employed in order to prop up a politically motivated, fallacious decree. The implied "right to privacy" led to a perceived "right to choose," which then led down the fatal path to a "right to kill."
Thoughtful conservatives will likely be uncomfortable with a presidential nominee that subscribes to such nonsense. Governor Romney's refusal to sign the pro-life pledge may be rooted in some ill-conceived form of pragmatism, but it comes at the expense of principle. It may also come at the expense of his nomination.