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Post-Roe Reality Sets In
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Post-Roe Reality Sets In

How abortion will affect the presidential primaries.

Pro-life and pro-choice demonstrators at the March for Life on Friday in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

For all of the attention paid to the consequences from the end of Roe v. Wade on the recent midterm elections, neither party has come to grips with reality in a nation where the long stalemate on access to elective abortions has been broken.

Indeed, so much of the attention was on how Democrats were pouncing and Republicans were distancing, and female suburbanites were energizing, we haven’t given appropriate attention to the structural changes taking place in politics. 

After Republicans saw the massive turnout in the lopsided defeat in August of a Kansas anti-abortion amendment, elected officials and party message makers clearly understood the size of the potential backlash against the single-biggest policy victory for social conservatives in generations. What activists had worked so long to win, politicians scrambled to defend in an election year. A consensus quickly emerged in the GOP that a) the issue was a liability for the party and b) any discussion on policy in the post-Roe world should wait. 

The wait is over. 

“It wasn’t my fault that the Republicans didn’t live up to expectations in the MidTerms,” Trump announced earlier this month. “It was the ‘abortion issue,’ poorly handled by many Republicans, especially those that firmly insisted on No Exceptions, even in the case of Rape, Incest, or Life of the Mother, that lost large numbers of Voters.”

Trump is embracing the same explanation that Democrats and many in the press have for the GOP’s 2022 fizzle. It may look like a way out for him from the hard, inescapable judgment that his involvement in the party’s primaries cost the red team the Senate. The Dobbs effect certainly played a role in that—as well as the tiny, Gaetz-baiting majority in the House, but Trump has been electoral poison for his party since 2018.

Blaming pro-lifers is not the way for Trump, long eyed with suspicion on social issues, to warm up Republican primary voters at the start of the long slog to Iowa a year from now. 

Trump’s former vice president sure knows it. Mike Pence came to Washington to rally with pro-life activists last week in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Roe, the first since its fall. When the powerful Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America swiftly rebuked Trump and the “ostrich strategy” on abortion, Pence was quick to share the statement, adding his own “Well said!”

Or consider South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem. Noem’s ambition is getting short shrift from the political press that treats her as a kind of stalking horse for Trump, supposing that she is looking to be his running mate. Noem’s abortion stance and her blistering attacks on frontrunning Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for “hiding behind” his state’s ban on elective abortions after the 15th week of pregnancy do not sound like someone sucking up to abortion squish Trump. 

It also points to what’s ahead for the GOP on the issue. There are already more than a dozen Republican states that have outright bans on elective abortion and others, like Florida, with steep curbs. More will follow. Republican governors and legislative leaders in those states without absolute bans had been able to cite midterm concerns to tamp down demands for more restrictions. In competitive states from Florida to Georgia to Virginia to Arizona and beyond, Republican legislators who know the power of pro-life groups in GOP primaries will not be quiet.

Meanwhile, Democrats are enjoying their best state-level standing since the beginning of the Obama era, reclaiming total control in Michigan, Maryland, Massachusetts, and Minnesota for the first time in years. The activists on the blue team do not want to waste the moment and, given the panic among Democrats about abortion access, it’s no surprise which issue is at the top of the list.

Republicans are getting into a nominating process that will feature a lot of one-upmanship (and womanship) on abortion as state legislatures try to outdo each other on who can pass the most extreme laws on the subject in both directions. It’s going to be a mess. 

The Republican National Committee deservedly took a lot of heat for having no platform at all in 2020, instead adopting a resolution that spent more time denouncing the media than anything and then vowing to “enthusiastically support” then-President Trump’s “America-first agenda.”

It will remain in history as another mile marker on the party’s long, sad retreat to MAGAistan, but even those of us in the “outrageous” and “misleading” media would have to admit that it didn’t really matter in terms of policy, which is what we pretend platforms are supposed to be about. 

When Democrats convened in the same city, Charlotte, eight years earlier, they had their own platform problems. In 2012, overzealous members of the Democratic National Committee struck one reference to God, as in “God-given potential” and, more significantly, lines that began, “Jerusalem is and will remain the capital of Israel.” 

Then-President Barack Obama asked the correct question. According to reports, his reaction when aides told him of the decision to literally remove “God” from the party platform: “Why did they change that?” Exactly. There were some boos in the arena when the convention chairman undid the changes on a hasty voice vote as soon as the second day’s proceedings began, but who really cares about a symbolic protest of a symbolic reversal to a symbolic change to a symbolic document?

It wouldn’t have mattered if the 2020 Republican platform had been copy lifted from a Hammacher Schlemmer catalog or if the 2012 Democrats had ratified the lyrics to Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian,” except for the demands of, Heaven help us, “the narrative.” Obama’s question was the right one because nobody cares what’s in a platform, only if there’s controversy about it. The Republican cop-out of 2020 was transcendent in its own way, replacing a statement of policy principles with a statement that sought to direct “the media” in how to “engage in accurate and unbiased reporting.” 

In our era of weak parties, platform committees and delegates don’t set policy priorities, but rather it’s the primary voters who reward candidates for certain positions held at certain times. 

That’s where the abortion debate is heading. Over the next 18 months, presidential aspirants in both parties will be looking for cues from activists on how to push forward on abortion in a post-Roe world. The ad hoc positions will depend on which candidates succeed at which times with which voters in which states. 

There is a solid consensus in the general electorate nationally for a compromise that allows legal elective abortion in the first trimester of pregnancy with restrictions thereafter. Whichever party’s nominee is able to appear closest to that stance will have an advantage in 2024. 

Democrats may certainly push President Joe Biden too far to the left on the issue, but what we don’t yet know is whether the candidate who survives what promises to be a brutal GOP nominating process will be in any position to make that case.

Chris Stirewalt is a contributing editor at The Dispatch, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, the politics editor for NewsNation, co-host of the Ink Stained Wretches podcast, and author of Broken News, a book on media and politics.