In the Weekly Standard, William Stuntz argues:
Each party’s base has two inconvenient truths it doesn’t want to hear. For Republicans, those truths concern immigration and the culture war. Most of today’s illegal immigrant population is here to stay (along with their descendants) and will pay no significant price for getting here outside the legal channels. No presidential candidate can change those facts. On the issue that matters most to conservative Christians–abortion–the political phase of the culture war is over. The right lost–a pro-life initiative failed in South Dakota in 2006: If it can’t win there, it can’t win anywhere. Well, maybe Utah. . . .
If Republicans fail to understand their unpleasant truths, they will lose in November, and lose badly.
Stuntz is right on immigration, and I suppose it is worth saying since there are people who believe that instantly deporting millions of people is a practicable strategy. But there aren’t many, I should think: None of the top five Republican presidential candidates ran on that platform.
Stuntz provides exactly three data points to support his contention that the “political phase” of the struggle against abortion is over: the South Dakota referendum; the Virginia gubernatorial election of 1989–yes, 1989; and a consensus of “political insiders” who know that “[i]n any national election in which abortion rights were squarely at issue, the pro-choice side would win, and win big.”
Let’s examine each. 1) The South Dakota proposal would have banned abortion even in cases of rape and incest. South Dakota may be the eleventh most pro-life state in the union by one measure, but yes, even there, a ban that complete is a hard sell. (Debate over the proposal centered, predictably, on these rare cases.)
2) The abortion issue did help Virginia Democrat Doug Wilder win in 1989. He endorsed parental-consent laws and opposed government funding of abortion, but highlighted his support for keeping abortion legal otherwise–especially in cases of rape and incest. He ran against a Republican who said he would prohibit even those abortions and then, toward the end of the campaign, flip-flopped on the question. It is also worth noting that 1989 was near the pro-choice movement’s peak in public opinion.
3) “Political insiders” are correct that a national election that turned on banning all abortions would result in a massive defeat for pro-lifers. A national election that turned, on the other hand, on keeping a status quo in which no state can prohibit abortion at any stage of pregnancy–well, that would have a rather different outcome. Pro-lifers, far from being unwilling to admit that they would lose a referendum on banning all abortions, have incorporated the fact into their every strategic move for the last fifteen years.
Republicans may well lose this fall, but there is zero chance that they will do so because the party a) wants to deport all illegal immigrants or b) believes that the public is ready to ban all abortions. Stuntz is not writing about the actual political world in which we live.