Not long after the prospect of electoral disaster in November became apparent to every Democrat willing to believe the evidence of his own eyes, partisan liberals began talking themselves into the notion that a Supreme Court decision would save them. If the Court struck down Roe v. Wade, Democratic thinking went, it would enliven their base voters in ways their records in office have not. This was and remains wishful thinking, but the left and its cat’s paws in the press will do their utmost to transform the 2022 midterm cycle into a referendum on abortion rights. Republicans would be foolish to let them get away with it.
To read the commentary around the political fallout that would result from a decision that favors Mississippi’s ban on abortions after the first trimester is to risk an uncomfortably close encounter with Democratic salivary glands. Such a decision would “be a cataclysmic political event,” one that affects all women but particularly the constituencies Democrats need to turn out in November. Imagine that. “Democrats see an opening on the issue,” CNN reported, noting that abortion rights could be “the sleeping giant of the 2022 elections.” And now that a decision overturning Roe appears imminent, media outlets rushed to publish speculative analyses about the ways in which this decision could “jolt,” “rewire,” and “upend” a political dynamic in America that presently favors the GOP.
Here, the wish has fathered the thought. The issue set that dominates the minds of most American voters is no mystery. Voters are prohibitively focused on the economy, which is experiencing stagnant growth and soaring inflation for the first time since the early 1980s. Reducing rates of violent crime and improving the quality of education (which languished in the two years typified by widespread pandemic-mitigation policies) are a source of widespread concern. And though they’re less of a priority, crisis-inspired issues like the war in Europe and semi-regular surges of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border also show up in polling. Niche obsessions and luxury beliefs—from climate change to election integrity, race relations, and transgenderism—barely register.
In post-Roe America, that will change. By how much, however, is a function of how Republicans respond to this long-sought conservative legal victory.
Democrats and their allies in media will try to make abortion rights the central issue of 2022. Republican candidates will be asked and asked again about their personal views on the practice and how it should be handled as a matter of state and federal law. They will be pressed to elaborate on what protections they believe should be preserved in the cases of rape and incest. They will be interrogated about their religious convictions and whether they or the women in their lives have experience with this procedure. And if Republican candidates are disciplined enough to avoid talking about abortion over and above the issues that most concern voters, they will be accused of hiding their extremism only to spring it on voters after they are elected.
Democratic strategist Lis Smith provides an honest glimpse of Democrats’ fondest hopes for how the GOP will respond to their good fortune. She took notice of a segment on Fox News Channel in which former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee was asked if the Court’s decision would allow states like his to criminalize abortions without “any exemptions at all.” “We passed a constitutional amendment in 1986 that made life from conception as part of our constitution,” he said, “so that’s exactly what it would be.” Huckabee’s remarks were reminiscent, in Smith’s view, of comments made by failed Republican candidates like Todd Akin and Richard Murdock, both of whom ill-advisedly shared their innermost thoughts about the virtues of rape-induced pregnancy, and both of whom went down to defeat. “Every single GOP candidate in the country must now be on the record on this issue,” she said. The press will almost certainly oblige.
While it may prove difficult, Republican candidates for federal office should avoid the temptation to expound on a matter that conservative legal doctrine maintains is the exclusive province of the states. Congress, the right’s most compelling rationale maintains, has no jurisdiction over abortion rights. Conservatives of principle can and should promote the values that produced this momentous event, but they should not play into national Democrats’ efforts to make this an issue for the federal legislature. If the Supreme Court does remand the matter back to the states, Republican candidates should respect and defer to that decision.
Republicans are the beneficiaries of a conservative legal victory almost a half-century in the making, and they should act like victors. They will find themselves on firm ground in their efforts to explain the legal rationale behind this decision and note that jurisprudential scholars on both sides of the debate over abortion rights recognize Roe as an irredeemable hash. Americans are of many minds on abortion rights—a deeply personal and unsettling issue that only the most radical partisans are eager to discuss. Democrats run afoul of public sentiment on the issue when they talk about human life as though it’s nothing more than a “cluster of cells” or say that abortion is tantamount to euthanasia (e.g., Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam ruminating on how “the infant would be kept comfortable” before being liquidated). Progressive activists have led the Democratic Party well away from the national center when it comes to abortion, and their candidates are liable to overreach in their attempts to retake lost legal and cultural ground.
But forcing Democrats to go on reckless offense demands that Republicans recognize that they are the victors in a long and hard-fought struggle. They are not victims. They are not beset by omnipotent cultural forces implacably arrayed against their interests, and they are not powerless to resist. The right’s potential victory over Roe is a function of its resolve to stick to the plan and avoid trivia. As long as they don’t let Democrats knock them off course, the GOP will keep the winning streak alive in November.