This video of John McCain on Fox News Sunday morning is getting a lot of traction, because it seems like he’s telling Republicans to back off their opposition to abortion rights.
But as with Bobby Jindal before, if you actually listen to what he’s saying, he’s not actually telling Republicans to make substantial changes to either what policies they advocate for or even necessarily telling them to tone down their actual passion for stripping women of their reproductive rights. He’s just telling them to be quiet about it, and hope the voters don’t notice. After McCain stated that Republicans should leave the issue of abortion alone, this happened:
CHRIS WALLACE (HOST): When you say leave the issue alone, you would allow, you say, freedom of choice?
McCAIN: I would allow people to have those opinions and respect those opinions and I’m proud of my pro-life position and record, but if someone disagrees with me, I respect your views.
In other words, McCain is saying that Republicans should generously allow pro-choicers to not only have opinions but to state them. The problem with this, I hope would be obvious, is that voters, especially single women, didn’t turn out against Republicans in the polls because we believed that Republicans were trying to strip away our First Amendment right to have and state opinions. (Though perhaps McCain has behind the scenes information that I’m not privy to on this front.) Not one of the thousand bills offered by Republicans addressing reproductive rights in the past two years, either in state houses or in Congress, was an attempt to ban people from stating out loud that they believe abortion is a right. All McCain is really advising here is for Republicans to continue pushing for restrictions on abortion and contraception access, but he’s asking them to be a bit quieter about it.
The problem with this advice, which is becoming routine on cable news talk shows, is that it’s simply advising Republicans to stay the course. Both in the 2010 and 2012 elections, Republicans running for office by and large tried to avoid talking about reproductive rights, and did so only when pressed. And even then they would try to pivot and change the subject to jobs or the economy half the time. Republicans have known for eons that this issue hurts them with independent voters.
Even George W. Bush was smart enough to know to talk elliptically about abortion when asked about it. In a 2004 debate with John Kerry, when asked about his strategy for appointing Supreme Court judges, Bush described the kind of judge he wouldn't appoint by saying, “Another example would be the Dred Scott case, which is where judges, years ago, said that the Constitution allowed slavery because of personal property rights.” It was a smart move, in that most viewers had no clue what he was talking about, but ardent anti-choicers knew he was telling them he’d appoint judges to overturn Roe v Wade, which anti-choicers erroneously compare to Dred Scott. (In fact, Roe is the opposite of Dred Scott, because it’s based on the premise that women own themselves.) It allowed him to downplay his opposition to abortion rights to independent voters, which helped him win the election.
In 2010, Republicans had massive victories in state houses and Congress because they claimed to have solutions to fix the economy. Republican campaign slogs were “Jobs jobs jobs” and “Where are the jobs?” Voters were clearly convinced that Republicans would be too busy rolling up their sleeves and getting on with creating jobs for Americans to worry about abortion. But what happened when Republicans got into office was an all-out assault on reproductive rights. The House passed one go-nowhere bill after another that attacked abortion rights and they twice tried to shut down the federal government in order to cut out contraception subsidies. And, of course, on the state level a record number of laws restricting abortion were passed.
In other words, Thomas Frank had it exactly backwards when in his famous quote describing the bait and switch Republicans play on their voters: “Vote to stop abortion; receive a rollback in capital gains taxes.” In fact, many people voted Republican in 2010 to get jobs and instead got relentless attacks on abortion and contraception.
Even if Republicans get even more aggressive in self-censorship when it comes to talking about reproductive rights in public—even if they start refusing to acknowledge questions about the issue, as Romney started doing on the campaign trail already—the fact that they are attacking reproductive rights will hurt them in the polls. They won’t be able to stop Democrats from pointing out their record on reproductive rights, nor will they be able to bully the press into not covering their assaults on reproductive rights. The only way they can actually keep voters from punishing them over this issue is to stop attacking reproductive rights.
So why don’t they? Well, they’ve created a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t situation. For years, conservatives have been whipping up the base on the abortion issue precisely because invigorated anti-choicers are such a political asset. Abortion gets them out of the house and knocking on doors like few other issues can. Some churches that used to be multi-faceted have become entirely about hating on reproductive rights. People who want to control women have unflagging energy when it comes to pursuing their obsession. (Witness Saudi Arabia’s embrace of electronic monitoring of women to see how bad misogyny can get when left unchecked.) To give up the war on women would be to see many of those anti-choice supporters lose interest and walk away. And there’s no guarantee that disgusted pro-choicers would switch to voting Republican even if they did give up the war on women, as pro-choice people tend to be generally more liberal anyway.
But they should at least stop pretending that they just came up with the idea to attack abortion rights while declining to talk about it in public. They’ve been trying that strategy for years, and no one is buying what they’re selling.