The one Republican capable of countering this perception, Mitt Romney, campaigned on the assumption that saying anything about abortion was a dangerous distraction from explaining that unemployment was too high. His campaign took the same approach to Democratic charges that Republicans, by opposing Obama’s policy of forcing employers to offer coverage for contraceptives and abortion drugs, were waging a “war on women.” When the subject came up during a presidential debate, Romney said he favored contraceptive access and that Obama was distorting his position. He did not, however, explain why he opposed Obama’s policy or his approach to these issues generally. Other Republicans, panicked by the Akin and Mourdock media frenzies — and, before that, by the furor over Rush Limbaugh’s denunciation of a supporter of the Obama contraceptive policy as a “slut” — adopted the same tactic.
The Susan B. Anthony List, a pro-life group, accurately described these tactics in its own post-election analysis: “Anytime a GOP candidate was asked to respond to the ‘War on Women’ claims made by the other side, they ducked for cover and had a canned response simply saying that the Obama economy was bad for women.” Despite such evasions, Republicans came across as the more aggressive party on abortion — one that might well ban all abortions, but would not be candid about these plans. The effect appears to have been to convert soft pro-choicers into people who voted against what they saw as pro-life extremism.
The alternative was not for Republicans to place opposition to abortion front and center in their campaigns, something few Republican candidates have done (and no presidential candidate has ever done). It was to highlight Obama’s own out-of-the-mainstream positions. George W. Bush did this quite effectively in his debates with John Kerry.
Pro-life Republicans, even those who believe that in an ideal legal regime abortion would not be allowed in cases of rape and incest, might well also ponder whether it makes sense to speak of such theoretical positions as though they had any relevance to contemporary politics. Why not just say, “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”? There is no reason a pro-lifer could not say these things in good conscience. Yet a few pro-life groups even ask candidates to pledge their support for an unattainably pure policy, to the detriment of their ability to advance feasible protections for unborn life.
The political condition of the pro-life cause is not by any means hopeless. Pro-life candidates did better in the Senate elections, for example, than Republican candidates did. Pro-life Republican Ted Cruz replaced moderate pro-choice Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison in Texas. A pro-life Democrat replaced a pro-life Republican in Indiana, and the reverse happened in Nebraska. Pro-choice Republicans lost seats to pro-choice Democrats in Maine and Massachusetts. The net result was that pro-lifers gained a seat even as Republicans lost two. That’s evidence that the abortion issue did not drag the party down.
The biggest political problems for pro-lifers remain what they have been for many years: They are in coalition with economic conservatives who have not found a way to translate their principles into a popular program, and they have not found a way to form a coalition with blacks and Hispanics who agree with them. Solving or mitigating those problems will require a massive effort not limited to the pro-life movement alone. In the meantime, pro-life politicians cannot afford to make avoidable mistakes.
— Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor of National Review, from whose December 31, 2012, issue this article is adapted.