In the last few presidential elections, the strategy of the Republican presidential candidate has been to talk about abortion only when asked. The purpose 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.
The 2012 vice presidential debate is a good example of this dynamic at work. The moderator Martha Raddatz asked the two candidates, “We have two Catholic candidates, first time on a stage such as this, and I would like to ask you both to tell me what role your religion has played in your own personal views on abortion.” Paul Ryan answered:
I don't see how a person can separate their public life from their private life or from their faith. Our faith informs us in everything we do. My faith informs me about how to take care of the vulnerable, about how to make sure that people have a chance in life.
Now, you want to ask basically why I'm pro-life? It's not simply because of my Catholic faith. That's a factor, of course, but it's also because of reason and science. You know, I think about 10 1/2 years ago, my wife Janna and I went to Mercy Hospital in Janesville where I was born for our seven-week ultrasound for our firstborn child, and we saw that heartbeat. Our little baby was in the shape of a bean, and to this day, we have nicknamed our firstborn child, Liza, “Bean.” (Chuckles.)
Now, I believe that life begins at conception.
That's why — those are the reasons why I'm pro-life.
Ryan gave a fine and principled answer about his belief that life begins at conception and he movingly connected his "bean" of an unborn daughter to the person she is today. Ryan did about the best that he could given that his opponents and the mainstream media were allowed to frame the issue.
This gets to something that is insane about our politics. In the real America in which third trimester and sex selection abortions are legal on-demand, Republicans end up defending (often sheepishly) bans on first trimester abortions caused by rape. Instead of starting from contraception and working forward, Ryan and other pro-life Republicans should start with the late-term fetus. Modern technology allows us to clearly see unborn children at later stages of development. We can see that they are human and nothing else. The message should be “Whatever else we can disagree on, can't we agree to protect these children?” Let the Democrats argue slippery slopes and that the destruction of these children is the price we must pay to prevent the enactment of some other law. Focus on specific policies. It should be okay for candidates to work within the constraints of popular opinion. Stick to policy proposals. If candidates are asked about other hypotheticals, they can give some appropriate-to-the-situation version of Ramesh Ponnuru's “Any law to protect the unborn is going to have to include an exception for rape and incest, and banning abortion in those cases is no part of my agenda.”
In my experience, a substantial number of self-identified pro-choicers are in favor of generally restricting late-term abortions. Many are not even aware that such abortions are legal or that President Obama supports them. It isn't simply that such pro-choicers could become allies in moving politics in a slightly more pro-life direction (though it is that too.) To some extent, presence can determine issue salience. It is all well and good to have some vague idea that late-term abortion exists and that President Obama is "pro-choice." It is another altogether to see human beings and know that some politicians are in favor of their destruction at-will.
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 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.
2. Raising the issue salience of late-term abortion is a process and that process is best started by outside groups between elections. The model of spending almost all advertizing money in the several months before an election is deeply flawed. The audience becomes stunned and numb as political commercial follows political commercial. Shifting public opinion on abortion is the work of years. The point is not to ensure that a particular Republican candidate has enough money to win. The Republicans, if they are at all competent, will contrive to raise money to fund their campaigns. The purpose of an abortion advertizing campaign should be to create a series of associations. People should have a series of visuals in mind when pro-life candidates talk about late-term fetuses and some sense of what the destruction of those fetuses entails. Pro-life candidates could 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.
3. 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.
Pete Spiliakos writes for Postmodern Conservative. His last “On the Square” was “The Roots of Conservative Class War.”
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