In Politico, Bill Scher prematurely declares liberal victory in the culture war. Brimming with optimism, he bases this contention on GOP setbacks in three areas: abortion, birth control and gay marriage.
If only the world was that simple. For one thing, it’s a mistake to assume the fortunes of abortion are in any way linked to same-sex marriage. While support for gay marriage has significantly grown from the late 1990s to today, polling on abortion has remained stagnant. As the lefty Public Religion Research Institute poll put it nicely a few years back, the “decoupling of attitudes on abortion and same-sex marriage suggests that these topics, which served in the past as the heart of the “values” agenda, are no longer necessarily linked in the minds of Americans.”
Once gay marriage is settled, abortion may detach completely from “culture war.” But both issues have their own trajectory for good reasons. Millennials might view same-sex marriage as an agreeable modern lifestyle choice – one that has marinated in notions of equality and anti-discrimination. Abortion, though, fails to offer this sort of gratifying rationalization. While same-sex marriage will be a fact of life, the technological advances in fetal science will only have thinking people contemplating what “choice” really entails. This may not always mean more laws. It may simply mean people changing their minds on ethical grounds. This too is a victory.
Scher bases much of his argument on the idea that contemporary pro-life Republicans have become less savvy politically. Perhaps. Still, pro-life advocates have enjoyed a number of state-level victories, with few examples of Republicans having to pay for their position. “Anti-abortion forces continue to hold the upper hand in deep-red states, where 20-week abortion bans without exceptions are the latest thing,” admits Scher, “But in the states that determine who controls Congress, the tables have been turned.”
Have they? Congress passed a 20-week ban on abortions with exemptions for rape and incest last year. Is the GOP about to lose control of the House over this bill? Why would it? A National Journal poll found that 48 percent of respondents favored the ban with 44 percent opposing it. When voters are asked about the same ban without party affiliation, the idea is even more popular. A Washington Post/ABC poll found 64 percent of Americans support prohibiting abortions after 20 weeks, with only 28 percent against. The Huffington Post/YouGov survey found that 59 percent supported the idea. According to Gallup, in fact, nearly 70 percent of Americans believe that abortion should be illegal even during the entire second trimester.
This is why Harry Reid refused to bring the ban to the Senate floor. It would have forced numerous Democrats to explain their absolutism on partial-birth abortions and fetal pain right before a midterm. Though, granted, the GOP hasn’t made this nearly as an uncomfortable topic for Democrats as it should be. So yes, less savvy.
Moreover, are 20-week bans really the monopoly of “deep-red states”? What about Arizona, Indiana, and the Democratic-controlled legislature in West Virginia? But, yes, as Scher points out, some Republicans like Scott Walker have gone wobbly on abortion recently. (Though, Walker did win a statewide election, and a recall bid, in a blue-ish state carrying strong pro-life positions.) Much like Mark Pryor or Mary Landrieu, politicians will offer incoherent prevarications on the issue for political expediency. This is nothing new, and it certainly doesn’t signify victory for one side. For every Todd Akin there is a Wendy Davis.
For some reason, Scher also brings up Colorado where GOP Senate hopeful Cory Gardner, in a political misstep, once signed a Personhood initiative years ago. The initiative is neither popular, feasible nor, more than likely, legal. This error, we were told, would play into the hands of Udall, who was hoping to repeat Michael Bennet’s brutal 2010 campaign focused almost exclusively on abortion and imaginary contraception bans.
But if holding pro-life views is as devastating as we’re supposed to believe, why then is Gardner faring better than Ken Buck, or any other Republican running for statewide office in Colorado in a decade? Now, Gardner may still lose, mostly because Colorado has turned blue, yet it was “Mark Uterus” who lost the endorsement of the pro-choice Denver Post editorial board and stumbled when answering a simple question about his support for late-term abortion limits (he has none). If anything, the Udall race illustrates the complexity of the issue, not the definitive end of the debate.
Udall is not alone. Democrats have increasingly wandered away from their cautious “rare and safe” arguments to absolute support for abortion no matter what the circumstance. It was simultaneously horrifying and refreshing to read Hannah Rosin’s review of Katha Pollit’s new book, which advocates that liberals stop pretending abortion is awful or even morally neutral and began treating it as a “social good.” We can’t exactly call this evolving on an issue. It is honest. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and others have long intimated that there is an even uglier Malthusian side to abortion that doesn’t play well in politics. People like Udall are only a small step from making the very same argument.
Scher is right, of course, that the GOP has often lacked strong leadership or cogent messaging. If Republicans had those things, liberal writers might have a more difficult time pretending conservatives were in favor of banning birth control. It’d be a lot harder for them to paint legitimate concerns about religious freedom as if they were pretexts for implementing policies that subjugate women. Folks who believe those things might even believe that the culture war is over. What they’re really engaged in, though, is a lot of wishful thinking.