A lot of journalists have made the point that this fall, Democrats are on the offensive on social issues and Republicans are running away from them. (I’m one of them: I offered an argument that, at least on abortion, Republicans are making a mistake.) William Saletan illustrates the point by looking at some candidate debates. But I think he also overstates the point.
First, he makes Republican defensiveness on some of these questions sound more novel than it is. He notes that Ed Gillespie, running for the Senate in Virginia, answered a question about Roe v. Wade by noting (accurately) that senators don’t decide whether it stays or goes. It is perfectly fair to say that it was a defensive answer. But Republican politicians have been defensive in that way for a very long time: It’s not some new development of this fall. Roe is popular, and George W. Bush declined to say that he wanted it overturned.
Second, he presents the Republican push to make oral contraception available over the counter as though it were a concession in the culture wars. This is true only if you assume that Republicans at one point were dead-set on doing anything possible to reduce access to it—and novel only if you assume that at one point they were bragging about it. But Republicans aren’t giving up an old position on contraception, and indeed they are using their support of over-the-counter contraception to strengthen the position they have taken for the last several years: that businesses, or at least businesses with religious objections, should not be forced to provide contraceptive coverage in their insurance plans. (And they have never enthusiastically campaigned on that issue.)
Third, he treats Republican opposition to late-term abortion as a retreat from their pro-life views. Saletan summarizes an exchange in a debate between the candidates for governor of Texas thus:
Davis, a state senator, cited her filibuster of an anti-abortion bill: “I stood on the Senate floor for 13 hours to assure that this most private of decisions could be made by women.” She said Abbott would ban abortion even in cases of rape. Abbott chose not to talk about legislation. Instead, he spoke of “a culture of life” and told viewers, “Texas is ensuring that we protect more life and do a better job of protecting the health care of women by providing that women still have five months to make a very difficult decision.” Only after that point, said Abbott, did the state have “an interest in protecting innocent life.” He sounded as though he were reading from Roe.
A few things on this. a) Let’s not get carried away by how aggressive Davis is being: Note that she can’t bring herself to utter the word “abortion.” b) Both of them are talking about legislation. They’re talking about the same legislation. When Abbott talks about “protecting the health care of women” and so forth, he is talking about the bill Davis filibustered. c) And sure, Abbott sounds like he’s reading from Roe, because what he is getting at is that the courts have recognized that the government has an interest in protecting fetal life late in pregnancy. It’s a stretch to read Abbott as denying that the state has a legitimate interest before that point. (There’s no “only after” in the transcript of Abbott’s quote.)
Saletan comes back at this issue when discussing a debate between two congressional candidates in Colorado. The Republican incumbent notes that he voted to ban abortion after 20 weeks, which “certainly” gives women enough time to decide whether to abort. For Saletan, the answer “smacked of Roe.” I guarantee you that should that bill become law, it will be challenged as inconsistent with the Supreme Court’s abortion jurisprudence.
And you could have made much the same claim when Republicans in the mid-1990s started to call for bans on partial-birth abortion. When they did that, were they being defensive and tacitly endorsing other forms of abortion? Or were they taking active steps to pull the law in a pro-life direction? I think that would have been an unreasonable interpretation of the campaign against partial-birth abortion, and it’s one very few people made.
I’d like to see Republicans campaign much more on a 20-week ban precisely because it seems to me to be a way to stop being defensive.