If there’s a clear lesson to come out of Tuesday night’s bizarre midterm election, it’s that Republicans can no longer be content with defensive victories or defensive politics. To win political power and do what must be done to save the country, Republicans will have to go on offense, present a compelling vision for the future, and engage culture war issues like abortion and critical race theory without apologies.
When they do that, they win. But it stands in stark contrast to the perennial advice of Beltway GOP consultants, who think it best to avoid major culture war issues like abortion. Indeed, the “official narrative” of corporate media in the wake of Tuesday’s midterms is that abortion was a big winner for Democrats, who supposedly capitalized on the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade, successfully making abortion a major electoral issue and blunting a red wave by boosting turnout among young, pro-abortion voters.
It sounds good, but it’s not quite right. Republicans who didn’t shy away from talking about abortion after Dobbs, and who signed into law abortion legislation earlier this year without flinching or apologizing, did really well — they were Tuesday night’s winners. As Marc Thiessen noted on Fox News, Republican governors in Ohio, Georgia, New Hampshire, Texas, and Florida all signed post-Dobbs abortion restrictions, and they all won reelection by comfortable margins.
That’s not to say abortion was a non-factor. Democrats squeezed every last electoral drop they could out of Dobbs, spending $320 million on abortion-related TV ads (much more than on all other issues combined) which helped motivate a voter base that might have otherwise been depressed.
Still, there was a clear contrast between Republicans who heeded the advice of Beltway consultants and tried to dodge abortion questions or take a noncommittal stance and those who defended their anti-abortion positions and pushed for post-Roe legislation. Only one of those groups fared well Tuesday.
The larger lesson here is that Republican candidates should lean into the culture war and make no apologies for their positions, even on contentious issues like abortion. Fighting back against the left, it turns out, is what a lot of voters on the right want from Republicans.
Consider what Ron DeSantis achieved in Florida, winning 60 percent of the vote after narrowly eking out a victory four years ago. He did that by not shying away from big, high-profile fights over hot-button culture war issues like critical race theory and transgender indoctrination. Glenn Youngkin did the same thing last November to pull off an upset in the Virginia governor’s race.
But DeSantis and Youngkin are, sadly, exceptions to the general rule that Republicans tend to be reactionary and defensive. Indeed, the failure of the conservative movement is largely attributable to this default defensiveness, and it needs to end. For decades, conservatives whined about just wanting to be left alone even as the radical left was marching through our institutions and transforming society, showing us at every turn they had no intention of leaving us alone.
Yet some on the right still don’t seem to get it. On Tuesday morning, anticipating a red wave, Ben Shapiro tweeted: “The mandate for Republicans will be to stop Biden’s terrible agenda dead. It will not be to make very loud but tactically foolish moves.”
Shapiro didn’t specify what he meant by “very loud but tactically foolish moves,” but he followed it up with this:
Sorry, but the era of normalcy and being left alone is over. The left will never leave us alone. They want to win and wield power, and if we want to stop them, we will have to win and wield power ourselves. Conservatives who want to be left alone will simply lose, as they have been for decades now.
Those like Shapiro who long to be left alone are also apt to argue that the conservative project has been moderately successful over the years, moving slowly to notch wins. Look at Dobbs. Look at religious liberty and the Second Amendment. Look at all the good judges appointed to the federal bench during the Trump administration.
But this is a cope. Yes, there have been a few victories for conservatives. The Dobbs decision was the greatest policy victory of the conservative cause in a generation, and it was due mostly to the dogged work of the Federalist Society and the Heritage Foundation, two institutions often unfairly maligned as “Conservative, Inc.” by the New Right, and — at least before Dobbs dropped — dismissed as failures.
Yet even the Dobbs decision was a defensive victory, handed down like a gift from on high by the Supreme Court. But it didn’t end legal abortion, and indeed the ruling itself bent over backward to avoid the broader implications of its own constitutional logic, which, as Justice Clarence Thomas explained in his concurring opinion, calls into question the constitutionality of substantive due process and the long train of Supreme Court rulings that have followed its invention more than a century ago.
As Dobbs itself suggests, defensive victories delivered by the federal judiciary aren’t going to reverse what has been, with few setbacks, a relentless, decades-long march by the left through every institution of American life. Anyone who tells you things aren’t that bad because we happen to have five mostly reliable Supreme Court justices is either delusional or quietly willing to acquiesce to leftist tyranny.
They’re probably also inclined to think Republicans didn’t really do so bad in the midterms, and that what Americans really want is just some tinkering with Social Security and the welfare state. Nothing too loud and tactically foolish. That’s more or less Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s plan if he becomes speaker of the House. After all, the country just wants to heal.
No. The country does not want to heal. It does not want “some semblance of normalcy.” There are two diametrically opposed moral systems at war right now in America, and it’s not enough at this late hour to be content with the status quo, to repose in the overturning of Roe v. Wade, and hope the five good justices will somehow stop the revolutionaries.
Just look at the successful pro-abortion midterm referendums in Michigan, Vermont, and California, where the right to kill the unborn is now enshrined in those states’ constitutions. What’s true of the abortion issue is true of nearly every other major issue in American public life. Being passive and defensive is not going to cut it. If Republicans want to win, they’d better be willing to fight. Let’s hope they are. The future of the republic depends on it.