Opinion

The only way for Democrats to ride the abortion tiger to victory in November

As in so much else, it's all about moderation

In the days since the leaked draft of a majority opinion overturning Roe v. Wade (1973) was published by Politico, Democrats have convinced themselves that this is a huge political gift for the party and an equally massive liability for Republicans — because the country is overwhelmingly pro-choice and doesn't want to see the landmark decision reversed.

This is a mistake. While it's possible to imagine scenarios in which the Democrats took advantage of widespread anger against the high court's actions to give them an edge in the upcoming midterm elections, the party isn't following that path. On the contrary, Democratic officeholders and candidates are staking out positions just as far out of the mainstream as Republicans seeking to ban abortion outright at the state level. The result is as likely to hurt the Dems as to help them in November.

In making their case for placing abortion at the center of their messaging over the next six months, Democrats point to multiple polls showing broad-based opposition to overturning Roe and widespread support for the pro-choice position. There are indeed polls that support those views. But how many of the people expressing support for Roe understand that overturning it will lead not to an automatic nationwide ban on the procedure but rather to the issue being returned to state legislatures? I suspect the number of Americans who grasp this crucial fact is quite low — which means hostility to the pending decision could well dissipate once it comes down and voters in solidly blue states realize that nothing has changed.

But what about expressed support for abortion rights in general? It's certainly true that when Americans are asked by pollsters whether they are pro-choice, around 60 percent say yes and have done so for quite a long time. But it's also the case that when they are asked whether abortion should be permitted in the first, second, and third trimesters, the results are far more conflicted. Support for abortion rights comes in at around 61 percent during the first three months of pregnancy, but it falls to around 35 percent during the second three months, and then falls again, all the way down to 20 percent support, during the final three months prior to birth. This shift has been picked up in Gallup polls from 1996 down to 2018, and it's also present in a more recent survey from a year ago.

It's also the case that most Americans support exceptions (for rape, incest, and the life of the mother) all the way through pregnancy. But the American default comes nowhere near support for a blanket right to terminate a pregnancy on demand.  

Now it's certainly possible that Republican state restrictions on abortion after Roe is overturned will end up being so outrageously harsh that public opinion in many places will recoil in the other direction, giving Democrats the momentum on the issue they're hoping for. But that will only happen if the Dems don't stake out a position equally far outside of the mainstream in the opposite direction. And on that, we have reason to worry.

Public opinion among self-identifying Democrats has been moving further left on numerous issues over the past decade, very much including abortion. The days when a Democratic politician with aspirations for higher office would use Bill Clinton's formulation about keeping the procedure "safe, legal, and rare" are now long gone.

Just a few months ago, in late February, 48 Senate Democrats voted to advance a bill — the Women's Health Protection Act (WHPA) — that would enshrine the right to an abortion through all nine months of pregnancy, despite strong opposition to late-term abortion in the public at large. The WHPA also would have knocked down parental consent laws in 37 states. The most recent Gallup poll to ask about parental-consent laws (from 2011) found 71 percent support for them.

As if to demonstrate this move wasn't just an empty gesture meant to appease the only people paying attention at the time (pro-choice activists), Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has now announced that Democrats will bring the WHPA up for a vote again next week. It won't pass, but it's hard to see how anything positive will be accomplished, beyond base mobilization, by getting so many members of the party on the public record favoring such a bill.

The same might be said of the decision by Rep Tim Ryan, the Democrat who will be facing Republican J.D. Vance in the Ohio Senate race this November, to come out this week on Fox News favoring no restrictions on abortion through 40 weeks of pregnancy. Vance lost little time in labeling that "a barbaric position anywhere in the world," including in European nations, which "typically don't allow abortion after 12 weeks." (Vance is right about abortion policy in Europe.)

It's quite a feat to make Vance sound like a paragon of moderation and reasonableness, but Ryan has managed to accomplish it. (Beto O'Rourke, the Democrat challenging Republican Gov. Greg Abbott in Texas, appears eager to do something similar in his own race.)     

Base mobilization is important, but it can backfire if the mobilizing position alienates or actively antagonizes other voters while also handing the opposing party material it can use to mobilize its own ranks. That's what Democrats are in danger of doing with abortion.

It doesn't need to be this way. A Democratic Party that placed itself near the center of public opinion by promising to codify abortion rights in federal law up through the early weeks of the second trimester would win a lot of support, even if it left the most maximalist members of the party clamoring for more. Going further might placate the maximalists, but it would likely win the party fewer votes overall, thereby decreasing the chances of the Dems accomplishing much of anything to protect reproductive rights at the national level.

Democrats need to figure out how to ride the tiger of justified rage at the Supreme Court's looming reversal of Roe. If they fail, they run the considerable risk of being devoured by it.

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