Polls come and polls go and seldom do they leave an impression. They’re not supposed to. They’re snapshots in time, as the pros like to say, and time marches on.
But occasionally a poll drops that sticks with you forever. I think often of this one from the Public Religion Research Institute, published a few weeks before The Election That Changed Everything in 2016.
I thought of it again while watching this clip on Tuesday night.
Looking at the PRRI data, one might confuse cause and effect. Because the Republican Party’s white Evangelical base had changed its views over time about the importance of character, you might reason, Donald Trump was able to win the presidential primary. I think the truth is the opposite. It’s because Donald Trump was able to win the presidential primary that the white Evangelical base changed its views about the importance of character.
Whatever conflicted feelings the average Republican voter had during the primary about nominating Trump, those conflicts eased during the general election. Faced with a choice between a man who can charitably be described as amoral and Hillary Clinton, Evangelicals concluded that Not Hillary was preferable. And not just preferable, but preferable enough to justify turning out for him.
The cognitive dissonance between supporting Trump and caring about politicians’ character had to be resolved, and so it was—in his favor. Character would no longer matter, to the extent it ever did. Republican voters donned a grotesque mask in the primary and then contorted their faces to fit it.
All of this is indispensable background to deciphering how Georgia Republicans will receive the allegations that Herschel Walker once paid for an abortion. I think swing voters will care. But what about the conservative base, which includes the most ardent pro-lifers? If the claims against Walker bear out, should we expect them to boycott the November election?
Does MAGA care if the Herschel Walker story is true?
Some do. Enough so in theory that most defenses of Walker by Republicans thus far have taken care to pronounce the allegations against him “fake news.” That’s what Trump and Lindsey Graham did, for instance, before pivoting quickly to the argument that Raphael Warnock would be worse for America in the Senate regardless.
Walker himself continues to check the “fake news” box by denying that he paid for an abortion but language about having made “mistakes” in the past has begun to creep into his answers during interviews. “People see someone sitting here in front of you right now that’s been redeemed,” he told Fox News yesterday while discussing his son’s comments about the allegations. Yesterday he released a new ad that doesn’t mention the word “abortion” but which speaks pregnantly of redemption and of being “saved by grace,” a hint that it’s time to let his past mistakes—all of his past mistakes—go.
For Republican politicians, accusing the media of “fake news” doesn’t always or even often mean accusing the media of falsehood. It’s possible that the Daily Beast libeled Walker with its abortion scoop but the “fake news” charge typically works just as well with stories that are true. It operates as a loyalty test in which conservative voters are asked to choose between giving the benefit of their doubt to a Republican who’s on the hot seat or to the antagonistic liberal media that put him there. “Fake news” is usually code for “Whose side are you on?”
Which is how we get Herschel Walker babbling cryptically about redemption while continuing to deny the particulars of the abortion story. It’s fake news—but also, he’s sorry for what happened. It’s false, but maybe sort of true. Does it matter? Whose side are you on?
But it should matter. Walker hasn’t been accused of any ol’ oopsie here. By the logic of the pro-life movement, he’s charged with murder for hire. If a newspaper accused a political candidate of arranging the contract killing of an enemy and offered documentary circumstantial evidence to support it, that candidate would be a nonstarter for voters of both parties—I think. When I look back at the PRRI poll and reflect on Trump’s infamous line about shooting someone on Fifth Avenue, I do wonder.
Assume that I’m right, though, and that even MAGA would rule out nominating a populist who allegedly hired a hit man to eliminate someone. What’s the difference between that case and this one?
One might say that aborting a child is different from arranging the murder of an adult since the latter has always been a crime while the former was legal everywhere until about five minutes ago. If in fact Walker paid for his girlfriend’s abortion in 2009, he almost certainly didn’t break the law, at least.
Conservatives don’t typically get legalistic about matters of grave moral urgency, though. For instance, most gun-rights advocates will tell you that the right of self-defense is a guarantee of natural law. That right is recognized by the Second Amendment, it isn’t “created” by it. Even if the amendment were to be repealed and gun ownership banned, Americans’ natural right to defend themselves would remain sacred and inviolable.
A baby’s right to life is also a natural right, or so one would think a staunch pro-lifer like Herschel Walker believes. By his own moral logic and that of most of the Republican Party, if he paid for an abortion then he’s guilty of murder from the standpoint of natural law, just not American criminal law.
Should that matter in weighing whether he’s fit for office?
If it should, what’s to be done? That is, when is the proper time to stop an unfit candidate in one’s own party from ascending to power?
The general election seems late. There’s no arguing with Dan McLaughlin’s logic:
It’d be passing strange for pro-life Republicans to punish a candidate who favors abortion on demand in his private life by throwing their support to a candidate who favors abortion on demand as national policy. Although it’d be less strange for them to withhold their vote from both.
The appropriate time to filter out damaged candidates is during primaries, we might say, when the alternatives on the ballot are palatable. Give conservatives a choice between a pretend pro-lifer and a real pro-lifer and that’s when you’ll see their commitment to the cause shine.
I’m not so sure. For one thing, Politico reported yesterday that rumors about Walker and an abortion have swirled for a while in Republican circles. It’s not clear how long “a while” is, but one consultant claims she heard the whispers as long ago as last year:
Liz Mair, a longtime Republican opposition researcher and consultant with corporate clients in Georgia, said she had heard the claim as far back as 2021. She is not involved in the campaign.
“I remember hearing about this very early and thinking it was like a classic oppo hit,” she recalled. “This abortion thing I heard. Having more kids than he was copping to I heard. And all of this was before we got to the point of him being [the Republican candidate]. I had heard about the alleged liabilities. And abortion was top of the list.”
Another Republican strategist who was involved in the Georgia Senate race said there was talk this summer—when stories emerged that Walker had fathered previously undisclosed children—that claims of a past abortion would follow.
Erick Erickson is tapped into Georgia Republican politics and says he remembers hearing rumors during the Senate primary this year about Walker having paid for an abortion
It’s possible that the story didn’t emerge until now because no one was able to nail it down. But it’s also possible that the evidence existed and was covered up by those in the know for cynical reasons. If Walker’s staff knew, they might have kept mum to protect their candidate despite the fact that exposing him would have been better for their party. If outside Republicans knew, they might have refrained from sharing the evidence for fear of being accused of doing the libs’ dirty work for them.
I find myself skeptical that the story would have cost Walker this year’s Senate primary had it appeared earlier, and not just because he ended up winning that race by 55 points. Ask yourself: If the Access Hollywood tape had been published during the 2016 primary instead of late in the general election, would it have cost Trump the nomination? His polls might have wobbled for a few weeks, but I suspect we would have been told in short order that changing one’s vote on the basis of a well-timed bit of oppo would be tantamount to “letting the media win.”
If you like populist candidates because they’re “fighters,” you should expect those fighters to have picked up a bruise or two in their lives before politics, no? As one Republican strategist memorably said to Politico about Walker’s abortion scandal, “It’s not that we knew about this specific case, but he’s a wealthy, famous football player who is obviously spreading his seed.” (Obviously.) A tape involving “locker-room talk”—or an occasional outlay to a mistress for an abortion—may bother the media and the left and the sort of soft-handed RINOs who read The Dispatch. But that doesn’t mean it has to bother you.
And if it does bother you, maybe you’re as soft as they are.
Whose side are you on?
The upshot of this sort of logic is that there’s never a proper time to filter out a damaged populist candidate. Withhold your vote in the general election and you’re handing power to Democrats. Withhold your vote in the primary and you’re playing into the enemy’s hands. They may not view paying for abortion as disqualifying, but they’re hoping and expecting that you will. Wouldn’t you rather spite them by sticking with the candidate you like? Why give them the satisfaction of depriving yourself of a “fighter” as nominee?
Being a Republican candidate in the Trump era means you don’t need to be fit for office, you only need to be as fit as the Democrat is. And conveniently, no matter what you do, you can never be less fit than the Democrat. Even if you’re unrepentant, even if it turns out that you’ve paid for multiple abortions, being a populist means never having to say you’re sorry.
Saying sorry is a sign of weakness, after all.
The irony of this cynical transactional politics, in which no personal flaw is unforgivable provided that a candidate votes the right way, is how it belies the idea that the Republican Party has become a cult.
In a cult, belief is everything. A pro-life party defined by its belief that abortion is wrong would treat a candidate who had paid for the procedure as an apostate. Walker would be finished if the case against him were proved.
Needless to say, he will not be finished if the case against him is proved. He might lose a meaningful share of swing voters but the great majority of pro-life Republican voters in Georgia will show up for him. Two days ago Ralph Reed told the New York Times he’s “100 percent” sure that evangelical Christians will continue to support their nominee and “even argued that the latest report could lift Republican turnout by rallying social conservatives to defend Mr. Walker.”
How can that be? Traditionally we look to a candidate’s history of personal behavior as a clue to how strong his commitment is to his political values, a big problem for Walker in theory if the accusation against him bears out. But everything depends on what you imagine the relevant “values” here to be. While the modern GOP may be a pro-life party, it’s not defined by its belief that abortion is wrong. It’s not defined by any policy position. To the extent it has values that serve as its political north star, they boil down to these. First, that keeping Democrats out of power is an urgent matter of national survival. And second, that loyalty to Donald Trump is essential to achieving that goal.
Herschel Walker would be a nonstarter in a party with different defining values, like believing sincerely that abortion is murder, but in a party like this one he’s fine. Better than fine, actually, since he and Trump have been personal friends for decades. He meets the criteria for loyalty and then some. Whatever his foibles, he subscribes to the two Republican values that matter and seems fully committed to upholding the tacit bargain between the party’s leaders and its voters: They promise to fight the liberal agenda tooth and nail and you promise not to hold them accountable for any sort of malfeasance they might engage in.
That’s where the “cult” element shines through. A candidate who violated either of the party’s core values really would be out on his ear, as Liz Cheney might tell you. But a candidate who respects those two has leeway in defying ideological dogma as circumstances warrant. You can be a high priest in Trump’s GOP without believing sincerely in the conservative catechism on abortion, among other subjects, provided that you chant the right incantations. And believe in the infallibility of the head of the church, of course.
No one understands this better than Trump. When Times reporter Maggie Haberman asked him about Walker’s history of scandal for her new book, Trump dismissed her concerns. “Twenty years ago [that] would’ve been a big problem,” he allowed, adding, “I don’t think it’s a problem today.” When Haberman asked why, he replied, “Because the world is changing.”
He’s often wrong. But not always.
We might ask, finally, why it matters what Herschel Walker does in his private life so long as he votes the right way on legislation. Neither side disputes that he’ll reliably support his party’s agenda as a senator, which may or may not eventually include a national ban on abortion. If he’s pro-life publicly, should we care that he’s pro-choice privately?
It would make him a hypocrite, sure. But if hypocrites were unfit for office, we wouldn’t be able to staff the government.
The problem with electing Republicans who don’t practice what they preach on abortion is that it undermines the ability of pro-lifers to persuade. I believe strongly that sincere pro-life advocacy is more likely to reduce abortion long-term than insincere pro-life legislation will. My colleague David French has often marveled at the fact that more abortions occurred in the United States before Roe v. Wade, in an era when the practice was illegal, than occurred in recent years before Roe was overturned. It’s not the law, obviously, that drove the number of abortions steadily downward for decades when it was legal and freely available. It’s the combination of cheaper, more effective contraception and the dogged efforts of abortion opponents to convince undecideds that life in the womb is life, not to be dispensed with lightly for matters of convenience.
If the charges against Walker turn out to be true and the Republican Party shrugs them off, how seriously should those undecideds take the right’s arguments going forward that abortion is a grave moral breach?
It might be one thing if Walker copped to it and claimed to have seen the error of his ways. Norma “Jane Roe” McCorvey, the plaintiff in Roe v. Wade, became an outspoken opponent of abortion after that ruling and was celebrated for it by pro-lifers. Converts are powerful witnesses when they’re sincere—which, perhaps, McCorvey wasn’t.
But Walker hasn’t copped to it, despite the fact that the evidence assembled by the Daily Beast seems compelling and that Walker’s own son appears to find it credible. If Republicans in Georgia hand-wave that away and send him to the Senate anyway, the message will be received that pro-lifers don’t take their own message on abortion seriously, that they quietly agree with pro-choicers that sometimes matters of expedience, electoral or otherwise, should trump the moral interest in not treating life in the womb cheaply. That, to borrow a joke circulating on Twitter this week, they believe there should be an exception to abortion bans for the political life of the father.
Walker could rescue them from that dilemma by admitting to the charges if they’re true and seeking forgiveness, giving them an opportunity to place him in the “convert” category. But I suspect he won’t, fearing that one more confirmed scandal might be the final straw for swing voters or fearing that an expression of remorse, even if insincere, will be viewed by some MAGA populists as a “weak” capitulation to the media. If I had to bet, I’d bet that Walker continues to deny and leaves his party stuck, forced to figure out whether they’re supposed to pretend to care about their candidates paying for abortions or not.
They should care. If they don’t, the window for behavior that the right is expected to excuse as a matter of partisan duty will open wider. And it’s already plenty wide.