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On Abortion, Donald Trump Is Doing the Republican Equivalent of Hippie Punching
And hippie punching wins elections. Joe Biden should try it!
As you’ve likely seen, Donald Trump appeared on “Meet the Press” this weekend and called the highly restrictive abortion ban signed into law by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis “a terrible thing and a terrible mistake.” As for his own position on abortion, Trump claimed (vaguely) that he’d “come up with a number of weeks or months” after which to ban abortion, and (implausibly) that by doing so he would produce “peace on that issue for the first time in 52 years.”
Trump knows the Republican position on abortion is unpopular, and so he’s trying to distance himself from it — presenting himself as a moderate who will support policies that cause abortion to remain fairly broadly available. There are reasons to be skeptical about how well this political tactic will work. Trump is on tape bragging about ending Roe and saying women who get abortions should be punished. While he now says six-week bans are terrible, back in May he was taking credit for making them possible: “Without me there would be no 6 weeks,” he reminded pro-life activists. Democrats will correctly argue the loss of abortion rights is all Trump’s fault (due to his judicial appointments) and that he can be expected to use the powers of the executive branch to further restrict abortion.1 And even if Trump wanted to protect legal abortion (at least in the first trimester), he’d never get legislation from Congress to do so in the states that have banned it, and he wouldn’t appoint judges who would be willing to return to the Roe regime.
But regardless of whether Trump will pull off a flip-flop here, liberals seem to understand that if Trump succeeds in convincing voters that he’s going to pursue a moderate course on abortion — one that makes the procedure widely available in the first trimester — that will increase his odds of winning the election. If conservative activists and politicians attack Trump for his “betrayal” of the pro-life movement, so much the better: That will only reinforce the message that he has moderated on the issue.
Trump is doing some classic hippie punching. Or he’s doing the Republican equivalent of hippie punching: He’s picking a high-salience fight with extremists on his own side as part of an effort to convince voters in the middle that he is sensible and moderate. But wait. I thought we’ve been told by progressives for years that this sort of politics doesn’t work, because it divides and demoralizes your base.
What if you wanted to argue that moderating his abortion stance would actually hurt Trump in a general election? You could say compromising on abortion just feeds into narratives about abortion restrictions being unjust or anti-woman, and that a morally clear, blanket pro-life policy is easier to defend politically than a wishy-washy compromise that makes nobody truly happy. You could say Trump’s call for compromise will demotivate socially conservative voters, who might not vote at all in a Trump v. Biden rematch because they don’t think either candidate is committed enough to fighting abortion. You could say pro-life activists are the backbone of the Republican Party, who deserve credit for organizing and winning so many elections — and that throwing them under the bus is not just wrong on the merits but an act of personal betrayal that will undermine the loyalty of the party’s base.
To be clear, all those arguments would be bullshit. And progressives know those arguments are bullshit — they badly want the media to push back on Trump’s claims to be an abortion moderate, because they know he has much more to gain by neutralizing the abortion issue with swing voters than he has to lose by upsetting anti-abortion activists, who might get annoyed but will still vote for him in a general election, because he remains a clearly better option for them than Joe Biden. (Everybody knows that “swing voters are a myth” is itself a myth when they watch the other side try to appeal to swing voters.) But the arguments I provide above are direct parallels of the arguments we hear from the left whenever Democratic politicians break with unpopular aspects of their party’s agenda, like using racial preferences in college admissions, raising the cost of fossil fuels, or softening penalties for serious crimes. Similarly, in those cases, the arguments are bullshit.
So what am I saying Joe Biden and the Democrats should do? One obvious answer is they should fight hard against Trump’s efforts to define himself as an abortion moderate: Highlight the actions from this last term that led to the end of Roe and the tools he could use — without any new legislation from Congress — to further restrict abortion access if he’s president again.
But another thing Democrats should do is find their own hippies to punch.
Joe Biden did this in a small but effective way this spring when he signed a Republican-backed bill blocking a criminal code reform that had been adopted by the Washington, DC, city council. Much of the reform was uncontroversial, but some parts were unnecessarily politically reckless — like reducing the (little-used) maximum penalty for carjacking when the district was facing a wave of carjackings — and one part would have made it significantly harder for the District to prosecute misdemeanor crimes. When Biden signed the law, he drew a lot of outraged commentary from progressives. Good. I would like to see more news cycles in which Joe Biden is attacked from the left for being too tough on crime.
Or to take another policy area: Did you know that domestic US oil production is at a record level? It is, and Joe Biden should talk about it more. He should approve more domestic production and transmission projects, and he should seek more publicity for the approvals he does issue. If the Sunrise Movement gives him another F- on his climate policy, great. I want voters to hear about how the left thinks Biden is doing too much to make gasoline abundant and cheap. Maybe he can get some of those Declare Emergency idiots to show up and make a lot of trouble at the White House.2
In general, this White House has been reluctant to do this kind of politics. They are obsessed, to a fault, with maintaining a positive image among the party’s progressives, even though those progressives will have no choice but to line up for Biden next year even if his agenda shifts toward the center. I think this excessive courting of progressive institutions — “The Groups” — stems in part from the very limited institutional support that Joe Biden received in the initial stages of the 2020 primary. While he was always the favorite of Democratic primary voters, he had almost no support from the sorts of people who staff campaigns, nonprofits, and congressional offices. The Biden White House seems to crave the approval it lacked back then, even though it does not really need it, and even though the pursuit of it is costing Biden electoral support.
Donald Trump has many political weaknesses — his lawlessness and manifest lack of character are unpopular — but one of his strengths is his willingness to discard (or at least publicly disavow) the unpopular agenda of pressure groups whose goodwill he actually does not need. During the 2016 campaign, Trump dropped opposition to same-sex marriage and support for cutting Medicare and Social Security old-age benefits like hot rocks, and distancing himself from his party’s unpopular stances on those issues was an effective part of his strategy to win. Now, he can get ahead politically by throwing the anti-abortion right under the bus, and he’s doing so. Biden should be doing a similar consideration: Who on my “team” is really just making me more likely to lose the election, and how soon can I punch them?
Some of those arguments need to be made more loudly and clearly — Democrats will benefit if they focus voters more on how a Republican president could use the FDA and Department of Justice to make abortion access harder even in blue states, and even in absence of new anti-abortion legislation.
Of course, if Biden takes my advice on these matters, Republicans will protest that his moderation is fake and the fights are kayfabe — just as Democrats are saying about Trump and abortion. They will sometimes be right, and they’ll sometimes convince voters of this fact. But Biden will still be better off than if he doesn’t try at all.