Decades of Republican Anti-Abortion Strategy May Backfire

Picture by Hilary Stone Ginsberg

The new Texas anti-abortion law may well be a Pyrrhic victory for Republicans. While not banning abortion outright, the statute gives conservative Republicans most of what they have demanded regarding abortion for decades. It is likely to be a case of be careful what you ask for….

If the Texas measure holds up, and if other states copy the law, Republicans will lose a wedge issue that provided right-wing politicians the ability to oppose abortion stridently, thus satisfying their evangelical flank, without alienating less socially conservative voters. Conservative politicians could ratchet up anti-abortion rhetoric to appeal in primaries to far right voters who respond to cultural issues but disdain Republican economic policy. Those politicians knew they paid little price for anti-abortion rhetoric in general elections since less socially conservative voters believed the courts would protect the right to an abortion.

The Texas law changes that dynamic. Even more frightening for Republicans is the looming possibility that, in the coming term the United States Supreme Court — stacked on the right with the three ultraconservative justices appointed by former President Donald Trump — may overturn, Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision affirming a woman’s right to choose. Successful chipping away at abortion rights means voters may finally hold politicians accountable for abrogating a woman’s right to choose. 

Polls show that roughly 60 percent of Americans want abortion to be legal in all or most cases. Support for the right to an abortion has remained stable for the last five decades. This consistent public support for a woman’s right to choose provides Democrats with an opportunity to score political victories in the coming years. If so, it will not be the first time Democrats have benefitted from carving out a popular position on the issue. Bill Clinton was aided in his successful run for the presidency in 1992 when he voiced the opinion of many that abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare.” In 2012, Democrats in Missouri and Indiana defeated, in Senate races, two right-wing Republicans who made vile comments about rape and pregnancy. 

Virginia, which elects its next governor this November, will be the first test of the political effect of banning abortion. The Democratic candidate, former governor Terry McAuliffe, wasted no time warning voters that a Texas-style law may be in Virginia’s future if his Republican opponent prevails. Glenn Youngkin, the Republican candidate, avoided answering questions about whether he favors a restrictive anti-abortion law, but in a video from a campaign event earlier this year, Youngkin said, when asked if he would defund Planned Parenthood, that he could not promise to do so during the campaign. But, he added, “When I’m governor and I have a majority in the House we can start going on offense. But as a campaign topic, sadly, that in fact won’t win my [sic] independent votes that I have to get.”

Republican politicians apparently sense that the Texas law may not benefit them. Like all politicians, Republicans read the polls, and they know public opinion has been consistently against a hardline anti-abortion position. Even more importantly, the possible triumph of anti-abortion politics removes a prime motivator — the need to get anti-abortion judges and justices appointed — the party has used for decades to get socially conservative voters to the polls. 

Trump understood the importance of judicial appointments to evangelical voters who might have had second thoughts about his moral character, or lack thereof. In 2016, candidate Trump said, “Even if you can’t stand Donald Trump, you think Donald Trump is the worst, you’re going to vote for me. You know why? Justices of the Supreme Court.” That tactic worked, and while those who had moral qualms about Trump were right, many decided they did not care all that much about his character as long as he appointed conservative jurists. A Faustian bargain, to be sure, but one that may work only as long as Roe v. Wade is the law of the land. If Roe is no longer the law, will these socially conservative voters feel the same urgency to vote as they have in the past?

Democrats, on the other hand, are sure to use the Texas law to lure not only their voters to the polls but independents, especially women and suburban voters, who believe abortion is a personal choice. “Republicans are already hemorrhaging college-educated suburban voters,” said Sarah Longwell of the Bulwark, an anti-Trump conservative internet news site. “This is an issue that further alienates that exact group.”

President Joe Biden harshly condemned the Texas law as an “unprecedented assault on a woman’s constitutional rights.” Outrage over the Texas statute aids Biden as it diverts public attention from the cascading bad news impacting his presidency. Biden and his fellow Democrats would rather talk about abortion than Afghanistan, the surge in COVID-19 cases, and the disappointing latest job report. Painting Republicans as extremists on abortion and other issues may also help Democrats secure their ambitious agenda, particularly the protection of voting rights. After all, Republicans wield awesome power in Texas because of the state’s history of suppressing minority voting, which will only get worse with recent passage of a draconian voter restriction bill.

The rise of abortion as a political issue is rooted in the 1972 presidential election when then-President Richard Nixon feared he would lose his reelection bid to George McGovern, the antiwar Democratic candidate. Pat Buchanan, a presidential adviser, persuaded the ever-cynical Nixon that the path to victory depended on wooing Catholic voters, who tended to vote Democratic. Many Catholics believed abortion immoral, and Nixon, at Buchanan’s urging, successfully appealed to Catholic voters by claiming a new-found belief “in the sanctity of human life — including the life of the yet unborn.”

While there were many reasons why Nixon defeated McGovern in a landslide in 1972, Republicans learned that anti-abortion politics was good politics. And, no one learned that better than Ronald Reagan, who as governor of California signed a law in 1967 loosening abortion restrictions. But, in the 1980 presidential campaign, Reagan called for the appointment of anti-abortion judges. The irony of that campaign is that Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter, the incumbent, who talked publicly about his faith, taught Sunday school, and described himself as “born again.” But, Reagan had the support of White evangelical voters, many of them mobilized by televangelist Jerry Falwell and his “Moral Majority.”

What worked in 1980 may not work any longer. Socially conservative Republicans have used opposition to abortion to rally their core voters for four decades. But, with public support for abortion rights holding steady and the Supreme Court seemingly ready to overturn Roe, or allow states to chip away at the constitutional right, at least, Republicans may find anti-abortion politics a liability. 

Be careful what you ask for….

Posted September 7, 2021

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