Many Beltway insiders seem to have convinced themselves that abortion doesn’t matter anymore. Just look at the press clippings from CPAC, where Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels wowed his D.C. cheerleaders with a speech doubling down on his earlier call for a “truce” over culture-war issues like abortion. Chris Christie came into town a few days later, and excited a lot of the same people with a speech focused almost exclusively on the idea that entitlement-spending cuts are the nation’s top priority. Big-time conservative strategists like Michael Barone have opined that a truce over abortion policy—as reflected in a structure of legalized abortion with “reasonable” state restrictions—is already in place. And we are told incessantly that the driving force in Republican politics, the Tea Party movement, is basically libertarian in its orientation and wildly uninterested in cultural issues.
How out of touch could they be? It’s rare to see the Washington zeitgeist so disconnected from the reality of what conservative activists and their representatives are doing and saying on the ground in Iowa, in state capitals across the country, and next door in the House of Representatives. Far from being a sideshow, the Right-to-Life movement’s priorities have been front-and-center for conservatives across the country.
Take the incoming “Tea Party Congress”: This January, House Republicans made restricting abortions an immediate goal, pushing the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act (H.R. 3) as a top priority right after their vote on Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law (H.R. 2). The abortion legislation, which has 209 co-sponsors (199 of them Republicans), is advertised as simply codifying the Hyde Amendment that’s been attached to appropriations bills since 1977; but it would actually go much further, denying employers a tax exemption for private health policies that include coverage of abortion services. Originally, H.R. 3 also sought to redefine “rape”—for purposes of the longstanding “rape and incest” exception to the Hyde Amendment—to include only “forcible” acts, presumably to remove pregnancies resulting from acts of statutory rape from the exception. The House also appears poised to pass appropriations measures that would eliminate funds for the Title X program, which provides contraceptive services for low-income women, and ban any federal funding for Planned Parenthood. And it is working to keep participants in the Affordable Care Act’s health-insurance exchanges from purchasing policies that cover abortions, even with their own money. If there’s a “truce” in place, it’s being violated daily.
At the state level, newly empowered Republicans are also promoting anti-abortion measures. In Texas, Governor Rick Perry has designated a bill to require pre-abortion sonograms an “emergency” measure, giving it legislative priority. In South Carolina, a bill is moving toward passage that would create an unusually broad “conscience clause” to protect health care workers and pharmacists from disciplinary actions prompted by a refusal to administer birth control or emergency contraception, to take part in medical research that destroys an in vitro human embryo, or to halt care of a dying person in a hospital. In Ohio, Republican legislators are pushing a blizzard of anti-abortion bills, including one that would fine doctors for performing abortions when a fetal heartbeat is discerned. A South Dakota legislator just made national headlines by introducing a bill that would classify as “justifiable homicide” a death caused with the aim of protecting the unborn. He withdrew it after critics called it a license to kill abortion providers, but a separate bill in the same state, headed for a floor vote, would require women to attend a lecture at a crisis pregnancy center (code for an anti-abortion advocacy office) before getting an abortion. Even Mr. Focus-on-the-Fiscal-Crisis, Chris Christie, opted to eliminate state contraceptive services in the interest of “fiscal restraint,” and made the cuts stick with a gubernatorial veto. One could go on and on; there’s clearly no “truce” in the state legislatures.
And there will be no truce on the presidential campaign trail. Daniels’s statements about dialing down the culture wars have already been vocally rejected by potential presidential rivals Mike Huckabee, John Thune, and Rick Santorum. Rush Limbaugh has said that Daniels’s position reflects the interests of a Republican “ruling class” that wants to rein in social conservatives and the Tea Party movement. In his CPAC speech, former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour framed his anti-abortion record as a core element of his conservative credentials, and repudiated his own past remarks urging support for pro-choice Republicans. Mitt Romney, whose previous support for abortion rights is a major problem for him politically, isn’t about to soft-pedal the issue. It’s likely that either Sarah Palin or Michele Bachmann, two the Right-to-Life movement’s very favorite pols, will be running for president later this year. In fact, in the vast field of Republicans considering a presidential campaign, there’s not a single figure who is publicly identified as pro-choice; even Donald Trump has gone out of his way to reassure the anti-abortion crowd he’s now on their side.
Why are Republicans are still fixated on abortion, at a time when they seem to be slowly drifting toward tolerance, or at least relative indifference, on other culture-war issues such as LGBT rights? For one thing, public opinion on abortion seems frozen in amber: Notably, in sharp contrast with issues like gay marriage, there's no evidence of generational change. But the main reason for the GOP's focus on restricting and ultimately outlawing abortion is simply that the Right-to-Life movement has worked very hard for many years to make itself perhaps the most impossible-to-ignore, dangerous-to-diss faction in Republican politics, particularly at the presidential level. Its strength was most recently illustrated when it stopped John McCain from choosing Joe Lieberman or Tom Ridge as his 2008 running mate, and had its poster pol, Sarah Palin, placed on the ticket instead. That's power.
By failing to note these dynamics, Washington types have been ignoring what is right in front of their eyes. Whether it’s the economic crisis—which has raised the relative volume of debate over fiscal issues—or the alluring media focus on seemingly “libertarian” legislators like Rand and Ron Paul (both of whom, by the way, are anti-choice), or the ever-present longing for a mature, bipartisan consensus, the punditocracy has convinced itself that Tea Party Republicans aren’t interested in going to war over abortion. As I’ve written in this magazine before, in fact they’d love to. Why are we acting so surprised?
Ed Kilgore is a special correspondent for The New Republic.