In the last few presidential elections, the strategy of the Republican presidential candidate has been to only talk about abortion when asked. The intention seems to be to signal pro-life views while not alienating voters for whom abortion is a low priority issue. This strategy is about mobilizing an existing voting base and not at all about persuasion. It is almost an exaggeration of the general Republican approach to electoral politics recently.
This “speak only when spoken to” approach to abortion seems cautious, but it is really foolhardy. It allows Democrats and their media allies decide when and how the abortion issue is discussed. So in a country in which third trimester abortions are legal on-demand, our abortion discussion centers on questions like “So why are you against the removal of a tiny clump of rapist-produced cells?” Republicans not choosing to talk about abortion doesn’t mean that we don’t talk about abortion. It means that we only talk about the issue when and how liberals choose.
This Republican reticence about abortion is all kinds of self-defeating. Remember when Obama was wrong footed by the question of when life begins? The one time abortion entered the 2008 debate, the Republican candidate benefited, but McCain and his allies dropped the issue. It wasn’t that McCain had a deep objection to culture war campaigns as such. He just liked his cultural division to be issue-free nonsense about “hockey moms” and about how Obama allegedly implied that Sarah Palin was a pig. This year we had a presidential race in which the incumbent was an opponent of the Born Alive Infants Protection Act, and the Republicans were somehow on the defensive. Republicans have settled on a form of opportunism that doesn’t even take advantage of its opportunities. So what are Republicans and their allies to do? Just a couple of ideas:
1. Focus on the full humanity of the late-term fetus. Tie the Democrats to their radical positions on late-term abortion on demand. Don’t shy away from the reality of who is being destroyed. This is best done by outside groups between elections. Donors who want to shape the political environment would do more good running these kinds of advertizing campaigns than giving Karl Rove money to intervene against the ghost of Christine O’Donnell and run ineffective general election ads. Republican candidates should then build on this increased public understanding of Democratic abortion radicalism. They shouldn’t wait to be asked by a journalist who strongly agrees with their opponent.
2. Focus on incremental policy changes. Republicans and pro-lifers have worked out a dysfunctional deal. Pro-lifers get formal policy maximalism in the Republican platform, while Republican presidential candidates spend the general election talking about abortion as little as possible. It seems to make more sense for Republicans to focus policy proposals on parental rights and restrictions on late-term abortion while noting that – whatever their ultimate beliefs – some abortion restrictions are very unlikely to happen in any foreseeable future while third trimester abortion on-demand is a reality.
Public opinion on abortion is likely to remain ambivalent, incoherent, and somewhat open to persuasion. The median voter will be somewhere on the spectrum of abortion restrictions. Plurality support will tend to go with whoever seems more reasonable – though the reasons political actors give will have some impact on what people see as reasonable. Republicans and their conservative allies need to more aggressively make their case, while taking account of public opinion in the policy fights they choose.