Politics & Policy

Winning, and Losing, On Abortion

How go the wars?

EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece appears in the May 8, 2006, issue of National Review.

President Bush has done almost nothing for the NRA. He hasn’t had to. Partly that’s because a Republican Congress has kept anti-gun legislation from reaching his desk. The ban on assault weapons expired without any congressional action to renew it. But even more, it’s because Democrats no longer fight for gun control. Many Democrats blamed their loss of Congress in 1994 on the assault-weapons ban, which had been enacted that year. Even more Democrats concluded that guns had lost them the 2000 election: If Al Gore had won Tennessee, Arkansas, or West Virginia, all relatively pro-gun states, he would have been president.

Gun control was one of three issues that were widely expected to bring about a Democratic majority in the 1990s. Gun control, education, and abortion were chipping away at Republican strength in the suburbs, especially in the inner ring of suburbs and among women. But the Democrats abandoned gun control after 2000. Democrats lost their huge advantage on education between 1999 and 2002, when George W. Bush changed the topic of debate from the abolition of the Department of Education to the No Child Left Behind Act.

Now it is becoming increasingly difficult for Democrats to deny that their support for “abortion rights” is hurting them, not helping them. They are trying to devise strategies to limit the damage.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Democrats — and not a few Republicans — were convinced that being pro-abortion was a winning position. In the twenty years following Roe v. Wade, the abortion rate and public support for abortion had crept steadily up. When the Supreme Court threatened to overturn Roe in 1989, many pro-life politicians decided to appease pro-choice voters by flipping on the issue. The 1992 Republican convention was widely regarded as a disaster in which the party’s social conservatives had turned off swing voters. And the public elected Bill Clinton, the most pro-abortion president since Roe came down. On his first day in office, he issued a series of executive orders liberalizing abortion law.

Since most of the leaders of the House and Senate favored abortion rights, pro-choice activists had high hopes of enacting the Freedom of Choice Act, legislation that mirrored Roe by preventing states from prohibiting abortion, even late in pregnancy. By the end of 1993, Clinton would propose a health-care plan featuring subsidized abortion. “The great abortion debate is over,” wrote columnist Charles Krauthammer: The pro-lifers had lost.

But pro-choice dreams quickly turned to ashes. Congress never even voted on the Freedom of Choice Act or the Clinton health plan. Democrats lost control of Congress in 1994, a year in which not a single pro-life incumbent lost to a pro-choice challenger. The new Republican leaders of Congress were pro-life. Suddenly, the abortion lobby found itself having to fight legal restrictions rather than fighting for government subsidies. The abortion rate peaked in 1990 (at 1.6 million), and public support for abortion peaked soon thereafter. . . .

Ramesh Ponnuru is the author of Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life (Regnery), from which this article is adapted.

YOU CAN READ THE REST OF THIS ARTICLE IN THE CURRENT ISSUE OF THE DIGITAL VERSION OF NATIONAL REVIEW. IF YOU DO NOT HAVE A SUBSCRIPTION TO NR DIGITAL OR NATIONAL REVIEW, YOU CAN SIGN UP FOR A SUBSCRIPTION TO NATIONAL REVIEW here OR NATIONAL REVIEW DIGITAL here (a subscription to NR includes Digital access).

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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