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The embarrassment of the House Republicans failing to pass a popular bill restricting abortions after twenty weeks has exposed the cynicism of the post-2012 Republican establishment. In response, pro-lifers should do everything they can to see the Republican establishment for what it is, while at the same time working to strengthen their own position and institutions.

In the aftermath of Mitt Romney’s 2012 defeat, the GOP establishment decided to double down on the policy preferences and priorities of the business lobbies. This meant supporting “comprehensive immigration reform” and deemphasizing social issues, even though it seemed unlikely that Romney’s problems was that he had talked too much abortion. But the Republican establishment assured us that those moves were necessary to win over younger voters and nonwhites.

The real value of this strategy was that it allowed the Republican establishment to dismiss the priorities of intraparty rivals without having to argue the merits of its platform: Listen Mrs. Pro-Life Tea Partier, even if you are correct about the issues [eye roll], the kids and the nonwhites won’t go for it. It’s out of my hands. We have to change with the times in order to stay relevant. I’m just the messenger.

Rep. Renee Ellmers recently tried to run this same play on pro-lifers when she argued that the twenty-week abortion ban would cost the Republicans party support among young voters.

Except that, depending on the poll, young voters are as supportive of a twenty-week abortion ban as the general population, or they are more supportive of such a ban. It also turns out that a much larger share of African Americans and Hispanics support a twenty-week abortion ban than voted for Mitt Romney. If the GOP establishment were serious about winning over young voters and nonwhites, they would highlight the abortion radicalism of the national Democratic party. The twenty-week abortion ban unites the GOP base, attracts persuadable voters, and splits the Democratic voting coalition (if not the Democratic party’s Washington-based elites). Instead, the GOP establishment prefers to focus on new low-skill guest worker programs. Because that is what the lobbyists—pardon me—the youngsters really want.

Are politicians in the Republican establishment a bunch of political cowards? Are they crooks who can be bought off by business interests? Some probably are just mercenaries (like the Barbour political clan), but I think that most of the Republican office holders, staffers, big money donors, consultants, and lobbyists are basically sincere in their worldview. They are not so much cowardly or corrupt as they are indifferent. Even if they are, in some sense, pro-life, it is a very low priority issue and embarrassing to argue about (the Democratic establishment has no such inhibitions—strange that). Think about the feedback loops. From Republican experiences with the mainstream media, anything that is not pro-choice radicalism inevitably gets portrayed as pro-life radicalism. From the establishment’s perspective, even talking about abortion makes Republicans seem ever so intolerant, and it distracts from more important issues like getting the America’s job creators the guest workers they need to replace those lazy and incompetent Americans who can’t cut it.

That doesn’t make the Republican establishment pro-choice radicals. If they prioritized legal abortion, they would be Democrats. They are willing to accommodate other forces within the party—if they have to. But they will also put their own priorities first as often as they can get away with doing so. They will gladly take advantage of a constituency that seems gullible, easily distracted, or poorly organized. Like President Obama (an abortion extremist if ever there was one) likes to say, power concedes nothing without a fight. Pro-lifers should keep that in mind as they deal with Republican politicians.

So what are pro-lifers to do? Obviously and firstly, they should ruthlessly punish fraudulently pro-life Republican officeholders. They should not accept excuses, whines, or doubletalk from the likes of Ellmers. Republican politicians need to know that pro-lifers are neither gullible nor forgetful.

At the same time, pro-lifers should seek to build institutions outside the Republican party that are focused on introducing pro-life perspectives to people who mostly consume mainstream media. Money that is currently spent subsidizing Mike Huckabee’s lifestyle (by purchasing books on guns and grits or contributing to campaigns that are transparent marketing scams) would be more usefully employed showing moderate Americans the reality of the late-term fetus. The trick is in building institutions that focus outward (to people who are not already regular participants in center-right politics) but also that can assure conservative small-money donors that their money will be spent wisely. The populist right’s lack of a small donor base that is connected to effective institutions (rather than ephemeral individual candidacies) is why the GOP establishment feels like it can outlast intraparty opponents. If pro-lifers (and other conservative populists) want more respect from the GOP establishment, populist conservatives will need to build institutions that the GOP establishment respects. And fears.   

Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things. His previous articles can be found here.

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