On the eve of the GOP convention, one reality continues to confront the party of Lincoln and Reagan--no matter how much many Republican Party elites desire it to go away as an issue, abortion remains the defining issue of American politics.

So far, the party is trying to have it both ways. On one hand, Governor Bush for months had stated over and over that abortion would not be taken into consideration in his choice of a running mate. Prominent pro-choice Republicans such as Govs. Tom Ridge and George Pataki were reported to be on the "short list" for the No. 2 slot. But reports in recent days suggest that the Bush camp knew the selection of someone supporting abortion on demand would run the risk of blowing up the convention and provide the fuel to power a Buchanan campaign that right now is locked in single digits.

So when all was said and done, Dick Cheney was selected. He is a good and decent man of moderate demeanor who ends up having a pro-life voting record that is better than Bush's himself.

Bush's team also stood back as the platform committee retained a strongly pro-life position.

Please, Governor Bush and Mr. Cheney, let's not be Clintonesque on this issue.

And yet, at the same time there is a continued impulse to try to downplay the issue to suggest it is not a major campaign factor. Cheney this week on "Larry King Live" stuck to his pro-life views but quickly said he didn't think it would be a major campaign issue. With all due respect to my friend, it is a defining issue.

Please, Governor Bush and Mr. Cheney, let's not be Clintonesque on this issue. The platform outcome and the selection of Cheney reflects a fundamental political reality. The GOP at its grassroots level is a profoundly traditional, pro-life, pro-family party. This is reflected in the fact that current national polls showing Bush in the lead also show that his vote is strongest among married couples with children, as well as Americans of all stripes who consider themselves traditional.

Likewise, on the Democrats' side there is no risk in predicting that Al Gore's running mate will be in favor of continued unrestricted abortion and that a "litmus test" on this issue will be applied to all major appointments in a Gore administration in the unlikely event that there is one. The Democrat Party activist base is overwhelmingly pro-abortion and pro-gay rights.

It's not just Republicans who try to downplay these differences. Clinton felt compelled to campaign on the idea of making abortion "rare," even though his administration has blocked every attempt to stop even one of the 1.3 million abortions that happen every year.

Abortion is the defining issue, not only because it is so profoundly important, but also because it represents a broader distinction between the two parties. The country perhaps more so than at any time in the past is divided into dramatically opposed camps.

The traditional side, most at home in the GOP, believes that liberty must be tempered by virtue. This side, my side, argues that only a virtuous people can remain free. We must promote individual private character if we want virtuous public policy. We object to the notion that American liberty can be reduced to different strokes for different folks. We support the right of private groups, like the Boy Scouts, to insist on moral standards as a condition of membership. We believe that one person's so-called "right to chose" cannot cancel another's right to life.

The other side of the cultural divide promotes tolerance as the highest American value. This side, most at home in the Democrat Party, believes in radical individualism and sees no moral dimension in sexual behavior. It rejects the notion of "community standards" that can be imposed on others. It promotes an activist judiciary that will impose on the public these values (gay marriage, for example) even when voters roundly reject such social engineering.

My point is simply this: No other difference between the parties is as profound as this cultural divide. And no set of issues will result in such widely different American futures as these unresolved value issues, with the abortion issue the most obvious example. In view of that, is it too much to ask both parties to treat this cultural divide as the serious issue it is? In fact, why not have a Bush-Gore debate on just this set of issues. Let the American people hear the two worldviews clearly and without camouflage.

At a time when "moral decline" is cited by a plurality of Americans as the number one problem facing the country, I have no doubt my side will prevail. But win or lose, the issues are so important that both parties should be more honest about what they believe. George W. Bush could begin the process during his acceptance speech by laying down a broad challenge to Gore on the cultural issues--including abortion. The American people deserve this discussion.

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