One of the essential tasks of a political party chair is to spin like mad when your candidates say and do unfortunate things. That’s the only way I can interpret this upbeat comment from Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel after the first Republican debate in Milwaukee:
Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel said the discussion about abortion during Wednesday’s Republican debate was part of an important path forward for the party.
“I was very pleased to see them talk about abortion,” McDaniel told Fox News on Thursday morning. “Democrats used that in 2022 … If our candidates aren’t able to fend a response and put out a response, we’re not going to win. They’re going to do it again in 2024. And I thought all of them did a really good job on that.”
The idea that Democrats were able to “use” the abortion issue in 2022 because Republicans wouldn’t talk about it is just plain wrong. The vast majority of GOP politicians greeted the Supreme Court decision reversing Roe v. Wade with emotions ranging from unbridled atavistic joy to deep paternalistic satisfaction. In any event, Democratic gains attributable to abortion-rights sentiment were triggered not by talk but by the actions of Republican legislators and governors in red states across the country who rushed to ban abortions to the maximum extent allowed by state courts.
The even bigger problem with McDaniel’s claim that Republican jibber-jabber on abortion will help its candidates is that they manifestly aren’t in agreement about what should be done in the post-Roe era, and in the areas where they can find common ground, their position is unpopular.
In Milwaukee, several candidates were asked if they support a national abortion ban. This is, in fact, the most relevant abortion-policy question for those running for federal office, particularly since most major anti-abortion organizations (a key constituency in the GOP since at least 1980) support — nay, absolutely insist upon — such a ban as an urgent priority.
Ron DeSantis has managed somehow to avoid answering this question for many months, even as he signed a near-total abortion ban in his own state that he brags about in conservative religious circles on the campaign trail. That didn’t change in the debate. Instead of addressing a national ban, he went off on a lurid tangent involving an alleged survivor of live-birth abortions — an exceedingly rare phenomenon that anti-abortion activists cite incessantly as the omega point of largely fictional Democratic “abortion on demand” policies.
A less hammer-headed evasion was executed by Nikki Haley, who has made a “realistic” rap on the political infeasibility of a national abortion ban something of a signature. Haley argues that while a national ban might be great policy (albeit hellish for the women whose interests she claims to value and and even represent), there’s no point talking about it because it would face a Senate filibuster even if Republicans controlled the White House and Congress. As the Cut’s Andrea González-Ramírez observes, a Senate majority could exempt abortion policy from the filibuster just as it has exempted key presidential appointments and budget matters. But the idea of an immutable pro-choice filibuster is a convenient dodge for Haley, a career-long anti-abortion extremist who now poses as peacemaker and compromiser.
Haley’s “realism” aroused the ire of Mike Pence, for whom supporting a national ban is a “moral” commitment on which compromise is impossible. Likewise, Tim Scott raised the specter of all those babies being murdered in Democratic states like California and Illinois. But then Doug Burgum pointed out that Republicans (and, indeed, anti-abortion activists) for nearly half a century had claimed abortion policy should be decided by the states, a position he still holds.
Maybe Ronna McDaniel can explain to us which candidate response to basic questions about abortion policy is going to do the trick in eliminating the Democratic advantage on the subject. Unfortunately, the one thing all the candidates on the Milwaukee stage had in common is that not one of them acknowledges abortion as a basic reproductive right. That was the bedrock tenet of Roe v. Wade, and it’s why polls consistently show sizable majorities of Americans expressing opposition to the reversal of Roe. For that matter, as state ballot initiatives constantly show, upwards of a third of rank-and-file Republicans believe in a right to choose abortion. So opposing that position while fighting over (or evading) the question of what happens when abortion is no longer a right is not a good look for the GOP. Perhaps if Donald Trump had shown up in Milwaukee, he could have repeated his earlier claim that the party’s unpopular views on abortion — not reticence in articulating them — had lost Republicans the 2022 midterms. His preferred approach of campaigning on other issues and then going after fundamental rights via judicial appointments is safer politically.
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