Update: Mere hours after I wrote the below in the morning’s Transom newsletter, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell did exactly what I predicted he would on Kentucky talk radio: claiming that the biggest challenge this fall is “funding the federal government”, he said that when it comes to defunding Planned Parenthood, “that’s another issue that awaits a new president.”
For the past several weeks, the conversation among the pro-life conservatives who make up the base of the Republican Party has focused on one thing above all else: the revelations found in the release of behind the scenes videos illustrating legally questionable and morally horrific practices on the part of Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest abortion provider. The latest of these hidden camera videos from the Center for Medical Progess was released today. They also sent a letter to Congress, responding to Planned Parenthood’s claims. Mollie Hemingway has more on the status of the controversy here. For pro-life Americans, no story in recent years has been more disturbing – this is Kermit Gosnell times a thousand. This has naturally led to a commitment from several members in both bodies – including Ted Cruz – that they will not vote for, and indeed will attempt to block, the funding of Planned Parenthood at the end of this month, when a continuing resolution or omnibus will be required.
For the time being, Capitol Hill Republican leaders are on the same page as the national pro-life groups – a shutdown strategy is not their preference, because it makes it more likely Democrats will win in 2016, and that means you miss probably your best opportunity in a generation to get rid of Roe v. Wade. Capitol Hill Republicans are looking to the pro-life groups to provide them cover by not scoring a Planned Parenthood-funding continuing resolution, and most of the big groups are expected to go along with this strategy.
Yet those groups can’t dictate what their fellow pro-lifers think, nor can they dictate what the current presidential candidates do in what will likely be the biggest and most prominent pro-life fight to take place within the context of a presidential election, mere months before Iowans (the largest portion of caucus goers, 40%, describe themselves as Christian conservatives) start voting.
So what will Ted Cruz do? How will he play this opportunity, and how will leadership respond? If the message leadership sends is that they care less about Planned Parenthood and will do anything to avoid shutdown, even fund a harvester of baby organs with your tax dollars, Cruz will have a golden opportunity to make his case that the Republican Party has abandoned not just fiscal conservatives, not just national security conservatives, but social conservatives as well. If there is ultimately no shutdown, and whatever step avoids shutdown is seen as a sell-out by pro-lifers, he could benefit significantly. But just about every presidential candidate will have to take a stand on this issue as well, and it’s in their interests to cater to pro-lifers, too – so what does leadership do if it is at odds not just with Cruz, but with several other candidates as well?
And then there’s Donald Trump. He benefits in either scenario, shutdown or not, because he has been on all sides of this issue. He can rail against the incompetence of a shutdown. Or he can back it, as he did to Hugh Hewitt, as a sign that finally Republicans – inspired, of course, by Trump himself – are standing up to Obama. If there is no shutdown and the deal is viewed as a sellout, that too could help Trump. Republican Senators who have been insulated from the Trumpburnt phenomenon will likely call him out in the same way they treat recalcitrant right-wingers – mock him, call him names, question his strategic chops, etc. But no one beats Trump at this game, and if he takes a flame-thrower to some Senator who gives him the high hat, his numbers are likely to only go up.
Republican leadership is in a bind. The presidential candidates who want to seem moderate in temperament are in a bind. The pro-life groups are in a bind. But the worst bind of all is actually the one group I haven’t mentioned yet: the media. The media loves to engage in shutdown watches – they think it reveals Republican anti-government nihilism at its worst, and they are typically gleeful about the possibilities of such fights. Except oddly enough, they aren’t talking much about this atom bomb that everyone sees tick tick ticking away on September 30th.
Why is that? Isn’t it obvious? For the media to play up this shutdown fight, as is their nature, they first have to explain what the controversy is all about. And that is the last thing they want to do. An explanation means giving pro-lifers a huge platform to message on Planned Parenthood. “Republicans consider shutting down government for some reason we have no idea why, maybe see paragraph 12 for a possible explanation” is the tone that most coverage of this issue has had thus far. In an actual shutdown scenario, that would have to change. Heaven forbid that Pope Francis mention it in a sentence that also talks about gays.
This is an opportunity that Republican leadership could seize if they wanted to. The likeliest scenario here is no shutdown – a situation where Ted Cruz makes noise, but pro-life groups and leaders give cover, the base is disgusted, and Trump nukes some dumb Senator over it. But that scenario will be more palatable for pro-lifers if they have the opportunity to have their day in the sun. If Republicans put a continuing resolution that defunds Planned Parenthood on the floor for three weeks, forcing the Democrats to rail in opposition and for the media to cover this topic day after day, it would be a far better approach than doing nothing, saying nothing, then cutting a deal at the end of the month, where Mitch McConnell comes out to the microphones and says with a smile that the Senate is open for business.