I'll say this for Donald Trump: He's full of surprises.
The GOP nominee has said many horrible things. And given his way with words, even when he tries to say good things, it often comes out as fairly horrendous. And yet, during his third debate with Hillary Clinton, the things he said about abortion were not only relatively cogent, at least for The Donald, but actually followed an excellent blueprint for Republican politicians who want to make the pro-life movement's case.
Now, it's almost certainly true that Trump doesn't actually believe anything he said during the debate, and particularly not about abortion. He was a pro-choice Manhattan liberal for almost all his public life, and has never shown any particular interest in the issue. His closest adviser, and by all accounts the only person he truly listens to, his daughter Ivanka, is known for her support for Planned Parenthood.
But contrast Trump's debate performance on abortion with what happened in another similar setting: the vice-presidential debate between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan in 2012. When asked about his position on abortion, Ryan spoke movingly about his wife's first ultrasound, seeing the small being in the mother's belly shaped like a peanut, and how he and his wife, from that moment on, referred to the child lovingly as "Peanut." To Ryan, that episode solidified in him the belief that even just after conception every human life is unique and valuable.
Ryan's story is powerful, and true. As a father, I had an eerily similar experience. After my wife's first ultrasound, a moving experience for so many parents, we had coffee, and at some point I said something to the effect of, "If I was pro-life before, then now after seeing her I'm even more so, at an even deeper gut level." My wife enthusiastically agreed.
But while stories like these are moving and even important, they're not the smartest politics, especially given the format of a presidential debate, which is aimed at swing voters. The American people are deeply divided on abortion. But there is also broad agreement on modest restrictions on abortion, such as after viability. Meanwhile, the position of the Democratic Party and national Democratic politicians is that abortion at any stage of the pregnancy is a constitutional right, and ideally should be subsidized. That's a tough sell to many swing voters.
The pro-life movement has long settled on a gradualist approach, one that seeks to focus, at least as a first step, on abortion restrictions that can be supported by a majority of the American public. And that's exactly where Trump went during Wednesday's debate. (He was probably suitably coached after his humiliation this spring, when he called for punishments for women who seek abortions, a position that is well outside the mainstream of the pro-life movement.)
Trump noted that the goal of the pro-life movement in terms of the Supreme Court, overturning Roe v. Wade, would not ban abortion nationally, but simply return the issue to the democratic process, where the United States Constitution says it belongs, at the state level. He also pointed out that Hillary Clinton's position entails the potential of allowing an abortion of a baby one day before birth — that is to say, a fully viable, formed, and conscious child, in no way distinguishable from a newborn lovingly cradled in his mother's arms, could be, in Trump's suitably gruesome words, "rip[ped] out of the womb."
Clinton was backed into admitting that that is indeed her position, protecting herself with the fig leaf that maybe "something terrible has happened or just been discovered about the pregnancy," code words for malformations with the child. That is to say, the idea that abortion is okay if a baby is malformed, which is essentially an endorsement of eugenics.
This was highly effective rhetoric from Trump. Having no limit at all on abortion seems monstrous. But it's tricky, because setting limits is inevitably arbitrary.
It brings to mind a famous-among-pro-lifers exchange on the floor of the Senate between the pro-life Rick Santorum and the pro-choice Barbara Boxer. Santorum pressed Boxer on when, exactly, a child gets the right to life. During a partial-birth abortion, 80 percent of a viable baby is delivered, and then her skull is punched through with a device to execute her. Santorum pressed the point: If a viable child 80 percent delivered does not have a right to life, when does it have it? In the end, Boxer stammered, "I think when you bring your baby home, when your baby is born … the baby belongs to your family and has all the rights." The implication here, that a fully born viable child, as long as he's not "home," can be killed, is deeply troubling.
This is why Trump's rhetoric during that exchange was on point. The painful paradox, of course, is that Trump is the worst possible spokesman for the pro-life cause, largely because of his obvious misogyny. But the fact remains that, for a brief moment, he taught Republicans a lesson or two about how to advocate for that position.