Republicans Are Willing to Pay a Political Price to Ban Abortion. It's Up to Democrats to Make Them Pay It.
Abortion strategy after Roe. Plus: Reappraising Kyrsten Sinema.
We got a bit of advance notice on this one, but now it’s official: The Supreme Court has overturned the Roe and Casey decisions, and states are now free to prohibit abortion; in fact, a substantial number of them have done so already, since they previously enacted “trigger” bans that can now take effect.
As I’ve written recently, public opinion on abortion is muddled, but one clear observation you can read out of the polling is that broad prohibitions on abortion are unpopular at a national level — and sufficiently unpopular nationally that they face net disapproval in some states that will soon have them.
In calling for total bans on abortion, and in dusting off the trigger laws, Republicans are signaling they are willing to pay a political price for the unpopular policy they’re seeking to impose, but it’s not automatic that they’ll actually pay it. This is where Democrats need to focus. To obtain that political price from Republicans— and to win the elections they will need to win to protect and restore abortion rights — Democrats will need to make a counter-offer: set up favorable comparisons, where voters see a broadly popular policy offering from Democrats compared to the extreme, unpopular one from Republicans.
If Democrats offer proposals and rhetoric that are easily framed as similarly extreme, that’s tantamount to allowing Republicans to win the policy fight and suffer few consequences at the ballot box along the way.
There are a few prongs of that fight I want to discuss.
Wield power while you have it
After the draft decision leaked, Democrats brought a wish-list bill to the floor of both chambers that even pro-choice Republicans — even Sen. Susan Collins — were able to comfortably vote against on the grounds that it was too extreme, more expansive than Casey. Democrats need to break the agenda into pieces. As soon as possible, force Republicans to vote on matters like:
a federal right to abortion in the first trimester,
a federal right to abortion in cases of rape and incest,
a federal prohibition on criminal penalties for women who seek or obtain abortions, and
a federal prohibition on criminal penalties for non-providers who assist women in seeking or obtaining abortions.
This is not anywhere close to an exhaustive list. Unlike a catch-all bill, there are many individual ideas about protecting abortion rights that are very broadly popular — bringing them to the floor puts Republicans in the position of either voting for policies to protect abortion rights, or going home to defend votes that are actually hard to defend in election campaigns.
If you can win by going straight to the voters, do that
On issues where the Democratic position is popular even in red states, such as minimum wage and Medicaid expansion, liberal groups have gone directly to voters for approval in states where that is possible. And they have had significant success: In part because of referendum campaigns, 30 states have minimum wages higher than the federal minimum wage, and 38 states have expanded Medicaid, despite widespread opposition from Republican lawmakers.2
Replicating this success on abortion rights is going to require a significant degree of pragmatism and flexibility. There are some states where a measure that codifies rights similar to those created by Roe and Casey could win — one passed in Nevada all the way back in 1990, and you might pass something similar in, say, Arizona — but in more solidly red states, it will be more prudent to advance a more limited proposal, such as creating a state constitutional right to abortion only in the first trimester.
Of course, abortion can and should also be an issue in campaigns for state-level elective office, including where referenda are not possible or practical. I don’t think Democrats should be overconfident about abortion carrying them to victory in races for governor, legislature, and state courts — abortion is one of many issues voters care about, and even states that have pro-choice majorities will not always break their way, especially in the political environment that prevails this year. Few voters tell pollsters abortion is the most important issue for determining their votes. But, again, Republicans are running on extreme abortion policies in many states, and Democratic candidates will be able to use that fact to their electoral advantage — so long as their own agendas are more in line with the state’s median voter’s view on abortion.
Roe and Casey are already gone, so no more talk about not “compromising” on them
A few weeks ago, explaining why he wasn’t bringing more limited abortion rights legislation to the floor of the Senate that could get the votes of some Republicans like Collins and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said: “We are not looking to compromise something as vital as this.”
Well, there is no Roe left to compromise about. It’s gone, and positioning yourself as above half-measures is a way to end up with nothing. During the long fight for gay rights legislation, advocates (at least until recently) avoided being arrogant — they assessed what was possible with public opinion and coalitional support as it was, and they took half-measure after half-measure on the way to a near-total victory that was made possible by changed minds. Something similar is going to be necessary on abortion.
I’m frankly concerned that the abortion rights advocacy apparatus in the US is not up to this task — it’s too used to advancing a maximalist position aimed at the minority of voters who believe abortion access should be unrestricted and even government-financed through at least the first two trimesters of pregnancy, with significant availability in the third trimester. It’s too used to lecturing people about how the term “choice” is “harmful.” It’s too used to talking to an audience of gender studies majors:
I suspect that, as speaking to the whole public becomes the key to winning protection for abortion rights, Democrats will re-learn how to do it. It’s important enough, and they’ll find a way, even if it requires shoving The Groups aside.
President Biden hit the right notes in his remarks today — invoking the importance of the principle that “women should have the power to control their destiny”; framing Roe and Casey as having set a balance between making abortion available early in pregnancy and preserving the prerogative of government to restrict abortion later in pregnancy; decrying Republican abortion bans for their extreme and unpopular implications, like forcing women who have been raped to carry pregnancies to term.
Now let’s see the party operationalize that message in a way that can win, state-by-state. That should be possible, since on balance, the median voter is closer to Democrats than to Republicans on this issue. But the party and its associated organs will need more message discipline and more pragmatism than they have tended to demonstrate recently.
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Say thank you to Kyrsten Sinema: I am surprised and impressed that the bipartisan talks about gun control following the Uvalde massacre have turned into actual bipartisan legislation that takes a series of sensible steps aimed at reducing gun deaths. The law won’t turn us into the United Kingdom or Japan, but its provisions — including a more sensible background check regime for people who have recently reached the age of majority — are material steps in the right direction that should make Americans safer.
It’s an achievement. And one of the lawmakers most responsible for bringing it into existence is Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, who jointly led the negotiations on behalf of Democrats with Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy. This makes Sinema a prime mover behind two of President Biden’s major bipartisan legislative accomplishments, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law being the other one.
Sinema has built a reputation on the left as a legislative grim reaper because of her vote against a $15 federal minimum wage, her opposition to key planks of the Build Back Better plan, and her refusal to support abolition of the legislative filibuster. And I understand why she bothers progressives — unlike Joe Manchin, who represents West Virginia, Sinema is not as far left as one could expect for a senator from Arizona.
So I’m not saying they should love her or anything. But I just think this should be noticed — she’s not merely a thorn in Biden’s side, she’s played a key role in helping him cement certain achievements that progressives should care about and that have broader ballot-box appeal than BBB would have had.
That’s all for this week. I’ll be back with more for you on Tuesday.
Nancy Pelosi is pointing out that abortion is on the ballot in November, but that’s not quite right. Democrats are likely to lose their house majority in November for reasons unrelated to abortion. But Democrats have the majority now and don’t need to wait until November to call these votes.
A 39th, South Dakota, is likely to do so this November.