What has happened more recently is a fascinating response many observers would not have predicted: Republicans are trimming their sails. Arizona Senate Republican nominee Blake Masters has scrubbed his abortion position from his campaign website; Tom Barrett, a candidate to pick up a key purple district in Michigan, has followed suit; party weathervane Marco Rubio, who has long supported a complete abortion ban with no exceptions for rape, incest, or the life of the mother, is now trying to reframe his stance.
“I am in favor of laws that protect human life. I do not believe that the dignity and the worth of human life is tied to the circumstances of their conception, but I recognize that’s not a majority position,” he explained. “This is not an easy issue.” Rubio assured his audience that the abortion issue won’t be legislated at the national level anyway.
The conservative movement poured decades of work, backed by the sweat of millions of volunteers and donors, into clearing the way for complete bans on abortion. It has taken just a few weeks for them to measure the public response and recalibrate. This reveals something profound about the party’s makeup: Social conservatives never had full buy-in from the rest of the right. Conservatives were willing to support the anti-abortion agenda when legal precedent insulated them from the political consequences. But when the ammunition is real, their willingness to take political risks on behalf of the cause is limited.
In a sense, this is how politicians are supposed to behave: They monitor the voters’ response and change their stance as needed. But the flexibility they are displaying on abortion sits in sharp contrast with the dogmatic stance they maintain on taxing the rich. Republicans by and large understand that this position is a political liability. Unlike with abortion, they are willing to pay the price.
Republicans have clung to their opposition to taxing the rich even as it has consistently put a drag on their political appeal. Supermajorities of the public favor raising taxes on the affluent and corporations. Even as Democrats in Congress have struggled to cobble together votes for a tax hike on corporations, Republicans have almost totally abstained from attacking it publicly. Yet they haven’t moderated their stance, which has remained absolute for decades.
Sixteen years ago, I published a book about the unshakable grip supply-side economics held on the Republican Party. No other major conservative party in the world shares the GOP’s belief that tax cuts hold the key to prosperity under any imaginable set of conditions. In the years since, a handful of conservative intellectuals have made an effort to budge the party from this stance, to no avail. Under the Obama administration, Republicans refused to accept any increase in taxes, even in return for cuts to entitlement programs they could otherwise never enact themselves. For all Donald Trump’s populist bluster, his core domestic agenda was a large regressive tax hike.
I attributed the fixation on tax cuts to three sources. First, anti-tax zealots had a near monopoly on the right’s intellectual infrastructure, so even as the dogma failed test after test in the real world, conservatives were continuously assured the theory remained solid. Second, despite its inability to deliver on the promised results of faster growth and revenue, tax cuts for the rich retained a deep appeal for conservatives who opposed progressive taxation on moral grounds. And third, the anti-tax agenda developed a constituency of wealthy direct beneficiaries who were heavily motivated to maintain support for the agenda in the party.
Republicans have clung to this agenda even as it has consistently hurt them. The most obvious case study came in 2012, when Barack Obama cast his opponent, Mitt Romney, as a heartless plutocrat bent on helping the rich at the expense of the middle class.
In the wake of that defeat, Republicans formed a committee to assess the damage and propose alternatives. But, as Tim Miller, a former Republican operative involved in the effort, revealed in his memoir, the Republican “autopsy” never even considered changing the party’s deeply unpopular economic stance. Instead, it proposed moderating the party’s image on social issues. Republicans were willing to be flexible on immigration and other social-policy issues because those were issues it used to gain political capital. Cutting taxes for the rich is an issue Republicans are willing to spend political capital to advance. It is the party’s core domestic commitment, and every other priority must give way.
Republicans are obviously not abandoning their effort to restrict access to abortion. But the speed with which they have recalibrated what they long presented as an unshakable moral commitment shows who truly rules their party.