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The GOP’s Worst Fears About the End of Roe v. Wade Have Come True

Republicans were quick to wave away the political consequences. Now that they’ve arrived, they have no answers.

A protestor holds a sign reading 1864 does not equal 2024
A reproductive rights demonstrator holds a sign at a rally protesting Arizona’s decision to uphold an 1864 law that bans virtually all abortions in the state.

Nearly two years after the leak of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito’s draft opinion overturning Roe v Wade, abortion refuses to step out of the spotlight on center stage in American politics. 

Virtually every week there is a new outrage: Arizona, one of six states that will likely decide the 2024 election, is reeling from a state Supreme Court decision last week bringing back an 1864 ban on virtually all abortions. Florida’s draconian six-week abortion ban (a gift to the Sunshine State from Governor Ron DeSantis) recently cleared its last legal hurdle before it takes effect on May 1. And a bizarre decision by Alabama’s highest court in late February that frozen embryos should be considered children jeopardized IVF fertility treatments in the state and prompted a national outcry. 

Donald Trump’s desperate efforts to defuse the issue keep colliding with reality. The oft-indicted former president tried to tiptoe away from religious conservatives earlier this month by insisting that abortion laws should be left to the states. Rather than getting to bask in the cynical cleverness of his new position, he immediately had to deal with the reality that all-power-to-the-states could produce the anti-abortion rigidity of Arizona’s 1864 law. Also, Trump’s ego always has to be fed: He could not resist continuing to brag about appointing the three justices who overturned Roe.

Even a huckster with Trump’s disdain for the truth cannot spin away the fact that Republicans are on the unpopular side of the abortion debate. Fifty-nine percent of voters in a Fox News poll in late March said that abortion should be legal in all or most cases. And a Wall Street Journal poll in mid-March found that a stunning 39 percent of suburban women in swing states consider abortion to be their most important voting issue in 2024.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this for Republicans. In the spring and early summer of 2022, as the Alito draft became the official opinion of the Supreme Court in the Dobbs case, the prevailing GOP view of the political aftereffects of the decision was, in effect, “It will all blow over.” No Republican predicted that abortion would still be a powerful weapon for the Democrats in 2024 and beyond.

Writing in Politico, Rich Lowry, the editor of the conservative National Review, declared that the Dobbs decision was “a fizzle” as “a quick-acting elixir for Democratic political woes.” His logic in the July 2022 piece was that the Alito leak gave everyone a chance to brace for a reversal of Roe, “limiting the shock value and making the decision a dominant story for days rather than weeks.”

In an interview with NPR, Mitch McConnell—who, via efforts to block Merrick Garland and rush through Amy Coney Barrett, played arguably as big a role in Roe’s reversal as Trump did—seemed unfazed by the political implications of his anti-abortion handiwork. “I think it will be certainly heavily debated in state legislative and governor’s races because the court will have, in effect, returned this issue to the political process,” McConnell said after the Alito draft leaked. “My guess is in terms of the impact on federal races, I think it’s probably going to be a wash.”

Since everything for McConnell is political, it is tempting to wonder if he would have pursued the abortion issue with break-the-rules zealotry if he knew that it would turn out to be anything but a wash for the Republicans. There are hints from McConnell’s early days as, yes, a liberal Republican that he once supported Roe. If there was no conviction behind McConnell’s rush to approve anti-abortion judges, it suggests that this was a major miscalculation by a man who was always prized for his political sagacity. 

GOP Senate flamethrower Josh Hawley, whose raised fist of support shortly before the January 6 insurrection lingers in memory, offered a novel why-Republicans-will-gain theory in an interview with the Kansas City Star after the Dobbs decision. According to Hawley, millions of Americans will relocate based on the availability of abortions in their states. “The effect is going to be that more and more red states are going to become more red,” the Missouri senator said, “purple states are going to become red and the blue states are going to get a lot bluer. And I would look for Republicans as a result of this to extend their strength in the Electoral College.”

Other right-wing senators, who had been leading the anti-abortion bandwagon for years, adopted the implausible argument that the uproar over the leaked Alito memo was all sound and fury, signifying nothing. Texas Senator Ted Cruz argued in a TV interview, “Angry leftists, many of whom are pretty ignorant and don’t even know what overturning Roe means, I think a month afterwards are gonna be surprised—‘Wait, nothing about my life changed.’” (Something tells me that voters in Arizona and Florida might not agree.) 

Concerned about the political blowback from the decision, Senate Republicans circulated a memo (scooped by Axios) that was little more than a big smiley button on how to handle abortion. Written immediately after the Alito leak, the memo recommends, “Be the compassionate, consensus-builder on abortion policy.… While people have many different views on abortion policy, Americans are compassionate people who want to welcome every new baby into the world.” An ad script for a mythical female Republican suggests this deliberately bland wording: “Here’s my view—I am pro-life, but in reality, forget about the political labels, all of us are in favor of life.” 

When anyone in politics says, “Forget about the political labels,” realize that they are trying to squirm out of the losing side of an argument. 

Conservative Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan, who is sincerely anti-abortion, offered some wise recommendations for Republican men in May 2022: “Don’t fail to embrace compromise because you can make money on keeping the abortion issue alive.… Use the moment to come forward as human beings who care about women and want to give families the help they need. Align with national legislation that helps single mothers to survive.”

You may have noticed that none of this has happened over the last two years. Instead, the abortion issue has been defined for the nation by reactionary state judges and insensitive, good-old-boy GOP state legislators. The result is that the Dobbs decision was not a single event, but a torrent of regressive policies. It is telling that, despite Trump’s urging, the GOP-controlled Arizona state House failed again Tuesday to soften the state’s abortion laws. 

Many Republicans in Washington embraced the anti-abortion movement out of political convenience. With the issue gathering momentum nearly two years after Dobbs, this Faustian bargain doesn’t seem very convenient after all.