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A Political Crisis of the Republican Party’s Making

After Roe, Republican Members of Congress can no longer act like the decision is out of their hands.

Kansas Election
(Nathan Posner/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

In the weeks since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Democrats have spent millions of dollars telling voters that the first thing Republicans will do if they take power is to ban every single abortion nationwide—including when the mother’s life is in danger.

In response to this, Republican leadership has come up with their own brilliant strategy to counter the left's argument. They plan to say absolutely nothing. Instead, when cornered, federal Republicans will vaguely gesture towards the state legislatures and then reflexively pivot to a diatribe about gas prices and inflation.

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The wisdom of this game plan was put to the test on Tuesday, when voters in Kansas were asked in a referendum whether or not they’d like the Republican legislature to set the state’s abortion policy. Even in a state that Trump won by nearly 15 points, the answer was an overwhelming “no.” Unfortunately, Democrats successfully painted Republicans as extremists on the abortion issue, and the voters revolted against the referendum.

So, let’s state the obvious: Kansas isn’t a one-off. If Republicans can’t find a way to respond coherently to the left’s attack—if they continue to bury their heads in the sand and hope for better results—it doesn’t bode well for the GOP’s hopes of a red wave in November.

But if there’s anything that recent political history has demonstrated, it is the Republican establishment’s awe-inspiring ability to take all the available evidence and draw the stupidest possible conclusion. They see the loss in Kansas as a vindication, rather than a repudiation, of their strategy. Having lost an election because of their failure to set a concrete, coherent alternative to the Democrats’ proposals, Republican leadership seems ready to double down. Already you can see the Republican consultant class oozing its way back towards the tried-and-true game plan they know best: frame an election exclusively around fiscal issues, let the other side define you on social issues, and then blame the pro-lifers if and when you lose.

The idiocy of this plan should be apparent from the fact that it’s never once worked, but is clearer still if you take even the briefest glance at public polling. The Democrats have all publicly committed themselves to one of the least popular abortion agendas possible—legal up until the moment of birth, including partial-birth, for any reason, paid for by the taxpayer. The only way they can solve this problem is to claim that the GOP is about to enact the only policy less popular than their own: a blanket ban that would jail women who, say, treat an ectopic pregnancy. 

Republicans seem only too happy to go along, and in the absence of a counterargument, many voters believe the left's claims. It’s a Big Lie: even if any GOP congressman wanted to do such a thing (nobody does), and even if Republican voters were unified behind it (they're not), no such policy could even hope to reach the 60 votes needed in the Senate. Democrats, meanwhile, are by their own admission only one or two senators away from breaking the filibuster to enact their extremist agenda. 

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The good news for Republicans is that this Big Lie is relatively simple to disprove. Just tell voters what your actual plan is. The types of restrictions Republicans actually could pass, and do favor—such as a 15-week ban, when the baby can feel pain, with a life of the mother exception—are enormously popular. Even a 6-week ban, once the baby's heartbeat can be detected, polls above 50 percent.

The Republican party, however, has a long-standing habit of taking a silver bullet and promptly shooting itself in the foot. In the months since Dobbs, Senate Republicans have yet to articulate any of the winning positions they have to choose from—pain-capable or heartbeat. Candidates are all over the map in terms of what they’re willing to say, and many are opting to say nothing at all. As a result, Democrats occupy the field unopposed. 

Whenever that happens, the side that makes an argument generally wins the debate. It’s clear by now that Democrats are going to run on this issue, using it to motivate their base and turn off swing voters. Yet Republicans have yet to come up with a concrete answer. Worse still, they don’t even seem to think they need one. That’s a mistake. The bleeding isn’t going to stop on its own. The issue will continue to be a vulnerability unless Republicans put forward a specific federal bill, either pain-capable or heartbeat, with explicit protections for the life of the mother, that they will champion in their elections and vote for if they win the majority. Republicans across the country need a bill that can serve as a pro-life North Star, providing a popular contrast to the Democrats’ radical extremism of supporting abortion up to the moment of birth.

Failure to do this is political suicide. Without an answer to the left's attack, Republicans in extremely winnable races will lose—and badly. Maybe they would deserve it, but would the babies? If the GOP can't keep Democrats from getting a few more seats—enough to ditch the filibuster—every state in the country will be forced to allow dismemberment abortions up until the moment of birth. Millions more babies will be killed. If, on the other hand, the GOP can rally behind the commonsense restrictions voters overwhelmingly favor—preventing highly developed infants from being killed in the womb—countless lives will be saved.

Overturning Roe was just a first step. Now we are in the democratic era of the abortion debate. Republican Members of Congress can no longer act like the decision is out of their hands. Instead, we need to convince our fellow citizens to save as many lives as possible, as soon as possible. Already a tremendous majority of Americans agree with us that we should protect babies who can feel pain. And we have a majority who favor protecting babies whose hearts are beating. But if we cede the public debate at this pivotal moment—if we let the left depict us, rather than them, as the real extremists—we will lose. 

This is a political crisis of the Republican Party’s own making. The problem is apparent. The choice is crystal clear. Will Republican leaders do the smart thing?

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