For eight months we’ve watched Donald Trump rise to the top of the Republican presidential field while saying just about everything a politician isn’t supposed to say. However, some believe he finally crossed the line on Wednesday when he told Chris Matthews that he believes there would “have to be some form of punishment” for women who obtain abortions.
In an uncharacteristic move, his campaign quickly walked back the statement — twice — first saying states should decide how to punish women who obtain abortions, then claiming that he actually meant only the abortion provider should be punished, not the woman.
Two Trump surrogates rallied to the candidate’s defense. Chris Christie said Trump “obviously misspoke,” though it’s unclear how he knew this since he claimed he didn’t see the ubiquitous video of Trump’s remark. Dr. Ben Carson, who’s been too honest for his own good recently, explained that Trump was just caught off guard and forgot to dodge the question. “What you develop with experience is how to answer that in a way that is not definitive,” he told CNN’s Erin Burnett.
Those are pretty much the only people who chose to stay in this particular car on the Trump Train. Naturally, Trump was quickly bashed by his GOP rivals. John Kasich said, “Of course, women shouldn’t be punished for having an abortion,” and Ted Cruz argued that being pro-life is about “creating a culture that respects [the mother] and embraces life.”
Meanwhile on the left, Hillary Clinton cut together an attack ad in no time:
And both she and Sanders went off on Trump during their own MSNBC interviews, calling his comment “dangerous,” “outrageous,” “shameful,” and “beyond comprehension.”
For once, the Democrats were in agreement with anti-abortion groups, including the National Right to Life Committee, the Susan B. Anthony List, and the March for Life. The latter called Trump “completely out of touch with the pro-life movement,” adding, “being pro-life means wanting what is best for the mother and the baby. Women who choose abortion often do so in desperation and then deeply regret such a decision. No pro-lifer would ever want to punish a woman who has chosen abortion. This is against the very nature of what we are about.”
Several right-leaning outlets said the incident demonstrates why Trump can’t be the Republican nominee. National Review’s David French shuddered at the thought of Trump being the nation’s leading pro-life voice:
Get ready for a slow-motion pro-life train wreck if Trump’s the nominee. Supporting life is about more than merely checking off a box. A Republican nominee faces far tougher questions about abortion than Democrats ever do. It’s unfair. It’s ridiculous. It’s also a foreseeable and predictable fact of life. Even serving temporarily as the nation’s most prominent pro-life advocate (or at least playing a pro-life advocate on television) would do immense damage to the cause.
And The Wall Street Journal fretted that Trump is just playing into the liberals’ hands:
Mr. Trump’s loyal GOP partisans have been willing to ignore his rhetorical mistakes and excesses, but Democrats will be merciless. So will the media if he secures the GOP nomination. His abortion blunder is doubly troubling because it will reinforce his growing unpopularity among women voters in both parties. Imagine his Wednesday remarks playing as part of a national advertising loop from June to November. His talk-radio chaperones are going to have their work cut out.
As FiveThirtyEight’s Leah Libresco explains, while anti-abortion advocates have taken pains to emphasize that they’re not anti-woman, it’s actually unclear where voters stand on punishing women who obtain abortions. The most recent poll she could find was conducted in 2000 by the Los Angeles Times:
About a third (32 percent) of respondents said the doctor who performed the abortion should be punished, and 20 percent said everyone involved with the abortion should be held responsible. Ten percent thought the woman who had the abortion should be punished, and only 1 percent said the father should be held responsible. Almost a quarter (23 percent) of respondents said no one should be punished, and an additional 12 percent said they weren’t sure.
Regardless, Trump was already struggling with female voters. While his negatives are high across the board, an NBC/WSJ poll released last week found his favorability with female general-election voters is 21 percent positive and 70 percent negative.
Trump’s entire campaign has been marked by misogynistic incidents — from his feud with Megyn Kelly and his attacks on Ted Cruz’s wife to his passionate defense of his campaign manager following his arrest for grabbing a female reporter — and his comment about abortion will definitely be used to revive claims of a GOP “war on women.” In fact, the Democratic National Committee has already used the gaffe to attack the entire Republican Party. “In a matter of 24 hours, Trump has gone from defending his campaign manager over charges that he assaulted a woman to now saying women should be ‘punished’ for having an abortion. Trump is simply reaffirming what the country has known for years — that the Republican Party doesn’t stand for women’s rights,” said DNC spokesperson Christina Freundlich.
It’s possible that Trump will emerge from yet another controversy relatively unscathed (at least among GOP primary voters), but by raising uncomfortable questions about pro-life dogma, he didn’t do down-ballot Republican candidates any favors.