The Republican choice for the presidency in 2008 would be much clearer today if Chris Matthews had asked the right question last spring.
On May 3, the Republican presidential wannabes -- at the time minus Fred Thompson and a few third-tier candidates who have since had the sense to drop out -- gathered at the Ronald Reagan presidential library in Simi Valley, Calif., each hoping he'd be anointed Reagan reincarnate.
Earlier that day, President Bush issued a letter to pro-abortion Catholic Nancy Pelosi, declaring himself a pro-life president, plain and simple.
Bush wrote: "I am concerned that this year Congress may consider legislation that could substantially change Federal policies and laws on abortion, and allow taxpayer dollars to be used for the destruction of human life. I am writing to make sure there is no misunderstanding of my views on these important issues." The president stated clearly: "I will veto any legislation that weakens current federal policies and laws on abortion or that encourages the destruction of human life at any stage."
A sharper Matthews should have asked pro-choice Rudy Giuliani -- who has not only supported taxpayer-funded abortion, but, in the past, opposed a ban on partial-birth abortion -- a question of this nature: "The president, earlier today, threatened to veto any legislation that weakens current federal policies and laws on abortion or that encourages the destruction of human life at any stage. Would you, as president, send a similar letter to Congress? Do you support what the president did today?"
But even if Giuliani gave a blood pledge to support the Hyde Amendment -- the 1976 amendment that excludes abortion from the comprehensive healthcare services provided through Medicaid -- and veto anything that would repeal it, there will still be something missing. Leadership. And that's something that May 3 letter shouts concretely from the rooftops.
The letter had some real practical purposes this year, as far as the legislative process goes, and it will bleed into 2008. As Yuval Levin, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, said when it was issued: "The letter shows why elections matter, and why for social conservatives the question of who occupies the White House should call for careful reflection about more than just the judicial philosophies of the various candidates." It's a reminder that we must reflect on a candidate's record and philosophy and whether he has just made some assurances, or whether he actually believes what Republicans do.
In recent weeks, Sen. John McCain, who has the longest pro-life record of any Republican running for president, has talked about abortion in terms of human rights. Mitt Romney has talked about the suffering of women who have abortions, noting that some women feel like they have no choice. Fred Thompson recalled seeing the sonogram of his daughter and reflected, "My heart now is fully engaged with my head."
Meanwhile, Giuliani -- whatever assurance he may give on specific pledges -- is pro-choice. Even if he vows to keep restrictions that are already in place, he has definite limits and will not champion life. Not the way Reagan did. Reagan, comparing the fight over abortion to slavery, said in 1984: "I believe no challenge is more important to the character of America than restoring the right to life to all human beings. Without that right, no other rights have meaning."
And so the question pro-life Republicans are wrestling with right now is: If we win with Giuliani, is that too much of a compromise on life? Or worse yet: What if Giuliani's the nominee and the GOP loses anyway? The party would have compromised on life and lost anyway.
According to exit polls, George W. Bush took 80 percent of voters who cast their vote based on "moral values." What will it say about the GOP if the party abdicates leadership on life issues? That's the question many Republicans are going to continue to ask themselves as this election season gets even more furiously in gear. That, and the practical electoral question that follows: How will voters react? The guy who wins the hearts of pro-life activists may just be the one who makes his position as crystal clear as Bush did with that letter in May.