For the third time in six years Democrats and liberals are being given an opportunity to turn tragedy into progress. Will they blow it again?
What was surprising about the leak of the draft of a decision that would overturn Roe v. Wade was the leak itself, not its substance. From the moment the Supreme Court took the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization case it was likely that a court with six conservative justices would either uphold that Mississippi law banning abortion after 15 weeks or go even further to overturn Roe. After oral arguments in the case it seemed more likely than not that the Court would take the more extreme step. Unless Chief Justice John Roberts can work some magic it looks like the only real effect of the leak is that we know now what we would have known in about a month or two.
As much as I deplore the public health effects of overturning Roe, it does create a political opening for Democrats. If they play their cards right they could use this issue — where about 60% of the public agrees with them — to maintain their House majority and pick up enough seats in the Senate (as little as two) to kill the filibuster. With that they could not only reinstate Roe through a new law but also pass some or all of Pres. Joe Biden’s Build Back Better plan as well as their voting rights legislation.
I’m not saying that’s likely, but they’ve got a shot at it. And that’s a heck of a lot better than their prospects right now. They will almost certainly lose the House and they are likely to lose the Senate. They trail the Republicans on every major issue the public cares about — inflation, crime, the economy, immigration, education. But if abortion now supplants all that and some critical mass of voters turn out to vote primarily on that issue, the Democrats have a chance to reverse their fortunes dramatically.
But here’s the problem. They’ve had two similar chances in recent years and they haven’t capitalized on them. The first opportunity was the election of Donald Trump in 2016. Incompetent, crude, divisive — Trump was the worst President in history. And yet, the Democrats underperformed in 2020. Joe Biden won the electoral college by a narrower margin of votes in three states — 44,000 versus 77,000 — then Trump had four years earlier. Democrats lost seats in the House and they claimed the Senate by the narrowest of margins. The party lost every statehouse they targeted.
The second opportunity was the upheaval caused by the George Floyd murder two years ago. Support for the Black Lives Matter movement soared and the door was opened for progress. But calls to defund the police and riots and looting wound up pretty much squandering the moment.
So, liberals and Democrats need to be careful about how they approach the new opening presented by the coming abortion ruling. To put it directly, they cannot overplay their hand. While six out of 10 Americans don’t want to see Roe overturned, there is a lot of nuance in public opinion about abortion. It’s fair to say that the majority of Americans is pro-choice, but with reservations. To quote a recent Pew Research report: “Though abortion is a divisive issue, more than half of U.S. adults take a non-absolutist position, saying that in most – but not all – cases, abortion should be legal (34%) or illegal (26%). Fewer take the position that in all cases abortion should be either legal (25%) or illegal (13%).” (My emphasis added.)
That’s why I was taken aback when I saw signs at a pro-choice protest on State Street earlier this year that read, “Free Abortion on Demand” and “Abortion on Demand Without Apology.” This is exactly the wrong messaging. “Abortion on demand” is a phrase developed by abortion opponents to conjure up some vague image of radicals. It’s a senseless phrase. Abortion is a legal medical procedure, at least for now. We don’t talk about “triple bypass surgery on demand!” or “colonoscopy on demand!” Why on earth take the right’s bait? Why use their own language?
Nobody struck just the right tone better than Bill Clinton when he said that, “abortion should be safe, legal and rare.” That last word, “rare”, is key because it acknowledges the unease many even pro-choice Americans have about abortion. We’d prefer it didn’t have to happen. We support efforts at family planning, education and the easy access to contraception that make it unnecessary. Clinton’s phase encompasses shades of support for abortion rights and isolates the most hard-edged abortion opponents in the minority.
Probably the most significant political question is just how resonant the issue will be come November. Will it overtake inflation, crime, immigration and all those other issues on which Democrats are lagging? Democrats can’t just talk about abortion and not fix their unpopular positions on those other issues.
But if they’re able to diffuse opposition to their positions on other issues, keep abortion rights front and center and, most importantly, talk about it in the right way, they could turn what appears to be an impending tragedy into significant progress — and not just on this issue.
Postscript: I had suspected when I wrote this that “safe, legal and rare” had become too moderate and reasonable for today’s activists. Sure enough, a helpful reader sent me this story from Vox, which explains that abortion rights activists now see “rare” as a bad word. This is yet another example of our recurring theme here at YSDA: how the hard-left pursues their own arcane, boutique language while alienating voters who should be on their side.