Lindsey Graham's Abortion 'Compromise' Can't Win the Middle
Plus: a worthwhile Pennsylvanian initiative.
I need to start this week with a correction.
Last week, in an edition for paying subscribers, I highlighted two Wall Street Journal polls on abortion and remarked that support for a 15-week abortion ban had sharply declined from March to August, but I missed that the two questions had significantly different wording. The August question (finding only 30% support) specified that the ban would not include an exception for rape and incest; the March question (which found 48% support) was silent on that issue, saying only that there would be an exception for pregnancies that threaten a mother’s health.
I’m sorry about the error, which we’ve corrected in the web version of that newsletter issue.1
On a related note, Sen. Lindsey Graham introduced a bill yesterday that would impose a national ban on abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy. Graham’s bill does include an exception for rape and incest, subject to certain reporting requirements, but unlike the theoretical proposal WSJ asked about in March, it includes a medical exception only for later abortions necessary to save the life of the mother. Republicans tend to talk about bills that set a deadline for abortion around the end of the first trimester as being similar to laws that prevail in Western Europe, but by not offering a broader health exception, Graham’s bill would impose a significantly tighter restriction. His bill also wouldn’t stop states from setting their own more restrictive laws — it would be a ceiling, not a floor, on abortion rights.
Senate Republicans mostly don’t seem eager to talk about his idea, including the minority leader himself.
I think there’s an emerging dynamic here that isn’t too different from the politics of gun control. Republicans trying to pivot to more moderate positions on abortion are even echoing Democrats’ language about gun control — Arizona Senate candidate Blake Masters says he is for “common sense” restrictions on abortion. But gun control rarely works out as well for Democrats as a policy issue as the polls say it ought to, right? You can take your pile of polls about specific gun control policies that achieve 80% support, but the politics of guns is more about gut-level trust: Who will protect my right to own a gun? Do I trust that the ultimate goal of this politician isn’t really to impose much more restrictive rules than the ones he or she is running on?
And then the big difference here from the politics of gun control is that even the good polls for second-trimester abortion bans don’t have them at 80% support. They have them, most generously, in the 60s — but in the case of the AP-NORC poll, for example, you would have to count the 30% of respondents who say abortion in the second trimester should be “illegal in most cases” as supporting a ban. How many of those respondents would support Graham’s ban, which wouldn’t allow a woman an abortion even if her health was at risk, which does not include an exception for fetal abnormalities, which would impose prison sentences of up to five years on doctors, and so forth?
Crucially, polls also show that Democrats have a large advantage over Republicans on who can be trusted on abortion policy — that August WSJ poll has 48% of respondents saying they trust Democrats more to make abortion policy, while only 27% prefer Republicans.
That’s why I continue to believe Republicans won’t be able to execute an effective pivot toward a more moderate abortion stance. There are indeed a lot of Americans who hold intermediate views on abortion — who don’t view abortion as a morally uncomplicated act and who tell pollsters they support various restrictions, even though they don’t want a broad and outright ban. But once you try to turn that impulse into a specific set of policies that’s more restrictive than what prevailed under Roe and Casey without being an outright ban, you force those voters to think and talk about situations they’d rather not — extremely sad situations where circumstances change mid-pregnancy and women who didn’t want abortions earlier now do. And you create situations that will keep popping up in the news: Women who need abortions for reasons most people find compelling, who are supposed to be able to obtain those abortions under the new laws but are facing significant delays and barriers because of those new laws, and because of the steps doctors and medical providers have to take to be confident they’re not running afoul of them.
And all of that will feed — for good reason — into the Democratic narrative about Republicans’ abortion restriction proposals. Do voters trust that these restrictions won’t go too far? Do they trust that Republicans are sincerely trying to implement the wishes of cross-pressured voters who simply don’t want elective abortions at week 21, when many of those same Republicans were saying just a few weeks ago they wanted outright abortion bans? And that there won’t be perverse unintended consequences, like women waiting days for medically necessary abortions while hospitals figure out whether they can legally provide them?
There’s been a lot of talk about the smart and successful no campaign that defeated the effort to amend Kansas’ state constitution to eliminate the right to abortion. But it’s worth talking a little about the yes campaign. Yes campaigners emphasized that the amendment would not itself ban abortion — it would give state lawmakers the ability to restrict abortion. Specifically, they argued, in ads like the one below, it would enable “common sense” abortion restrictions of the sort the state Supreme Court had been blocking.2
While Graham may see himself as beating a tactical retreat, he’s wrong if he thinks he’s proposing something conservatives and moderates will agree on — Graham’s message was already the message of amendment advocates in Kansas earlier this year, and it was soundly defeated, in a red state. So it makes sense to me that other Republicans3 are wary of making this their message.
A worthwhile Pennsylvanian initiative
I mentioned last Wednesday, in response to a reader question about the alleged Republican advantage on “supply-side” policy, that Josh Shapiro, the Democratic nominee for governor of Pennsylvania, is proposing to eliminate college degree requirements for many state jobs. This is a classic supply-side policy: It seeks to increase the effective labor supply by making more people eligible for more jobs.
I was pleasantly surprised to see that Shapiro is featuring this proposal in a 30-second TV ad:
I say I was surprised because it seems like kind of a niche issue. Few Pennsylvanians are likely to seek out a state job they couldn’t otherwise get because of this policy change, let alone obtain one. (There’s a reason state government hiring practices don’t usually make the cut in paid media.) But the proposal must have tested well to get into the ad, and I assume that’s because of what it signals: Shapiro, who used to be a county commissioner in one of the most highly educated counties in the state, is focused on making sure you don’t need a college degree to get ahead in Pennsylvania.
Also on the supply-side front, read Jonathan Chait’s defense of the permitting reforms Democrats are likely to muscle through Congress over the objections of some very misguided environmentalists who apparently don't want zero-carbon electric infrastructure to get built, and Matt Yglesias’s account of his discussion with Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, who more broadly sketched out what supply-side economics looks like for Democrats.
Of course, “supply-side” got a bad name because it became a synonym for the idea that the best way to promote economic growth is to cut taxes — and that cutting taxes perhaps even generates so much investment and growth that it doesn’t cause government revenues to fall. But the much broader idea is an obviously good one: governments should look for ways to make it easier and cheaper to supply goods and services, especially at times like this, when labor markets are tight and inflation is high. The permitting reforms are the most important agenda item for that right now, but I’ll be talking about another aspect of it next week — that Democrats who purport to support transit infrastructure investment should really revisit their love of policies that make it quite difficult to supply things like subway cars to buyers in the United States.
That’s not all for today. I’ll be back with you again this evening with some notes on yesterday’s unhappy inflation report.
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The claim in this ad that the amendment would affect whether “extreme abortions in the third trimester” can be banned in Kansas is false — abortion is already illegal in Kansas after the 22nd week of pregnancy. The abortion restriction that led to the state Supreme Court case establishing a right to abortion was principally about the second trimester — Kansas lawmakers had tried to prohibit the dilation and evacuation procedure, which abortion opponents like to refer to as “dismemberment abortion”; while the ban would have applied at any stage of pregnancy, that’s a procedure that’s generally used for second-trimester abortions.
Except political genius Blake Masters, who says he would “of course” vote for Graham’s bill, and is thus inviting Democrats to center abortion in Arizona’s senate election.