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Don't Give Republicans' Anti-Abortion Strategy Too Much Credit

Yesterday, that venerable institution, the U.S. House of Representatives, passed yet another Republican-backed bill that will never become law. No, it’s not their thirty-eighth attempt to repeal Obamacare, though that’s surely around the corner. It’s a restriction on abortion that flies in the face of Roe v. Wade, proposing to ban the procedure at 20 weeks after fertilization even though the Supreme Court precedent draws the line at viability, which is roughly 24 weeks. It also flies in the face of science: Sponsor Trent Franks’s (R-Ariz.) reasoning is that fetuses can feel pain at 20 weeks, a notion that has been rejected by the medical community and is only supported by a handful of studies on rats, as Jodi Jacobson emphatically points out at RH Reality Check. Republicans acknowledge that the Senate would never pass the bill, and the president has threatened to veto. In short, it’s yet another case of House Republicans wantonly wasting everybody’s time.

And isn’t it also just plain dumb politics? After Mitt Romney lost the women’s vote by double-digits in the 2012 election, and after the electoral demolition of the so-called “rape caucus,” the GOP made noises about avoiding the abortion debate. “When it comes to social issues,” the RNC wrote in March, “the party must in fact and deed be inclusive and welcoming. If we are not, we will limit our ability to attract young people and others, including many women, who agree with us on some but not all issues.” But here they are again. And to make matters worse, the media, instead of calling this the thoroughly boneheaded and offensive move it is, has been giving the GOP the undue deference of framing it as a piece of strategy. The major papers have treated it like a calculated decision, if still a pretty bad one. In actuality, it's of a kind with a lot of the bills that have come to the House floor: a knee-jerk conservative impulse so strong, and so contrarian, that it appears to have overwhelmed rational strategizing.

According to The New York Times: “Republican leaders acknowledge that [the bill's] purpose is to satisfy vocal elements of their base who have renewed a push for greater restrictions on reproductive rights, even if those issues harmed the party’s reputation with women in 2012.” Other outlets have also gone with the line that this bill exists to please the party's nearest and dearest: “Evangelicals to GOP: Don’t betray us on abortion,” ran the headline of a story at Politico. Both stories mention the way Kermit Gosnell, the Philadelphia abortion doctor now serving life in prison, riled the base so much, they demanded an answer from lawmakers. But that's not true. Franks had been trying to pass a version of this bill for years that would limit the availability of abortion in Washington, D.C. When he reintroduced his bill this spring, the anti-abortion group the Susan B. Anthony List linked it to the ongoing Gosnell trial, and Franks used the ensuing momentum to expand the provision nationwide. He is obsessively, reflexively devoted to passing anti-abortion legislation—strategy be damned.

Of course, even if this bill is a considered appeal to the base, it's hardly a smart tactic. Even record GOP turnout wouldn’t have been enough to edge Romney in front of Obama in 2012. The party’s larger problem, as its laser focus on Hispanic voters has suggested it knows, is that its coalition is smaller than Democrats’, and demographic changes are steadily shrinking it. Do Republicans want women, or moderates in general, to be part of that coalition? If so, this bill won’t do them any favors.

The Times story also lists outlandish restrictions on abortion that have passed, or stand to pass, in conservative states since 2010. While the story was right to note that this bill is one among many, it's a little misleading that it is treated like the leader of the pack. “Now what you also see at the federal level is very disturbing, and it shows that abortion opponents are very emboldened,” the paper quoted an analyst at the Guttmacher Institute as saying. But the truth is, the national party needn't have embarrassed itself trailblazing: its small town colleagues have been doing all too good a job on their own. A total of 135 provisions restricting abortion passed in the states in 2011 and 2012 alone, according to Guttmacher. What's more, heavyweight anti-abortion groups like Americans United for Life and the National Right to Life Committee have specifically eschewed showy legislation like Franks’s bill, which often provokes a pro-choice backlash, in favor of “incrementalist” efforts—often at the state level—which quietly, reliably pass.

Franks isn’t “an idiot so much as a demagogue,” according to Michelle Cottle at The Daily Beast. But he’s actually both. The decision to introduce yet another morass of a bill into a historically unproductive and unpopular Congress; to underscore the radicalism of a party that is desperately trying to get moderates under its tent—this isn’t a piece of cool-headed, rational thinking. It’s the political equivalent of a temper tantrum. It’s the spectacle of a man who can't hide his flagrant disregard for rape victims (he didn’t want to allow an exception for rape into his bill), blindly lashing out—and of his party joining him.

In a way, this untempered vitriol is much more ominous than the comprehensible narrative, the underlying strategy, that the Times and others strove to find in Franks’s bill. Not only has this politics of bad impulses brought Washington to a virtual standstill, but it introduces an uncomfortable degree of unpredictability into the entire legislative process. Why does the vote on the 20-week abortion ban matter? Not because it stands a chance of passing, and not even because it will embolden state legislators in any measurable way. It matters precisely because it’s a stupid charade, an empty, aggressive show of force—and an encapsulation of everything that’s wrong with the House GOP.

Nora Caplan-Bricker is an assistant editor at The New Republic. Follow her on Twitter @ncaplanbricker.