Winning political parties don’t change their core principles or flip-flop on the major issues that animate major elements of their coalition. But they do pick their battles with care to maximize the number of wedge issues that favor them. Understanding this is key to understanding why the House GOP is right to push a late-term abortion bill that contains a rape exception.
A Compass, Not A Straitjacket
The foundation of any political party’s success – before we can even start to talk about winning over persuadable “swing” voters – is having a large enough, motivated enough party base to be competitive. That, rather than any failure with the middle, was the particular difference between George W. Bush (who narrowly lost independent voters in 2004) and Mitt Romney (who won independents by 5 in 2012). The voter-turnout analysis in Sean Trende’s latest column should offer a sobering look at who and where the GOP in 2012 failed to turn out voters who might have been receptive to its message. (More here and here). Abandoning major elements of the party’s platform – becoming the party of legal abortion, higher taxes, comprehensive Washington regulatory schemes, gun control, and a torpid national defense – is the road to sawing off more chunks of the existing base in the mere hope of replacing them with people who are not currently reliable Republican voters. This has never been a recipe for political success – it’s not how the party came back from the doldrums in 1968, 1980, 1994, 2000 or 2010, and it’s not how the Democrats did it in 1992, 2006, 2008 or 2012.
Bobby Jindal is right: the GOP is in a hole and one that could grow to be a very large hole – but right now, that hole isn’t really so deep, not when we hold the House, 30 governorships and total control of 24 state governments. Our goal should be to build from that, not tear it down and start over.
But just because the party’s ideological direction is set does not mean that it can’t have a flexible strategy. Our principles are a compass, not a straitjacket. So much of what goes on at campaign time is not argument about core issues, on which the parties’ brand identity is fairly well-set; it’s about “wedge issues” at the margins of those issues. Not abortion, but stem cells and rape exceptions and contraceptive mandates. Not immigration, but driver’s licenses and the DREAM Act. Not taxes, but tax “loopholes” and the “Buffett Rule.” Not gun ownership, but background checks. And so on.
Wedge issues have always been a mainstay of elections, and at least now that Barack Obama has perfected their use, we are temporarily free of ridiculous columns and books by liberals claiming that they are somehow an illegitimate part of politics. A lot of us on the Right thought that many of the wedge issues raised by Obama in 2012 were silly and juvenile, but the reality is, they were effective – and in many cases, particularly effective with young voters (voters under 30 provided Obama’s entire margin of victory) because they were juvenile.
The path back to victory is to follow Newt Gingrich’s longstanding advice: be the guys pushing more of the 70/30 and 80/20 issues than the other guy, more wedge issues where the public is on your side. (I cited Newt’s response to the birth control question in the debates as a prime example of how you do this rhetorically). It is emulating George Washington, who knew when to retreat to more defensible positions to preserve his army, rather than take the Stalingrad position of “not one step back, no matter the cost.” You pick your battles, or your battles pick you. And lately, without strong or trusted party leadership or a broadly agreed-on strategy, Republicans have been letting the other side choose what battles to fight.
This is bad enough when Republicans are trying to avoid losing ground on wedge issues, as with Democratic pushes to raise the top marginal tax rate or pass new gun laws. Sometimes, you have to accept a few of those fights. But it’s insane when the party is actually proposing to make policy progress on an issue, and we are told that we can’t run for five yards if we won’t get ten. Which is precisely where we are on late-term abortions and the rape exception.
Save The 99%
Late-term abortions are generally unpopular for reasons of both emotion and science: as a child develops further in the womb and as ultrasound technology advances, it is simply harder to look at that child and deny his or her humanity. The Kermit Gosnell case drove home that reality. On the other hand, for equally powerful emotional reasons, voters tend to be unwilling to ban women from getting an abortion after they’ve been raped.
Neither of these is a logical distinction to those of us who see the abortion issue as a straightforward question of who is and is not a human being. But voters’ emotional and empathetic reactions are the stuff of democracy, and we ignore them at our political peril.
When asked to discuss the rape exception, pro-life Republicans should remember two simple points:
First, rape and incest account for a very small proportion of all abortions, by most accounts less than 1%. (A celebrated 1987 study by the generally pro-abortion by the Alan Guttmacher Institute is the main source for the 1% figure; there are a number of methodological pitfalls in measuring this, but most of them suggest that the Guttmacher figure is as likely to be overstated as understated). For pro-lifers, that means a rape-and-incest exception is an opportunity to save 99 or more lives for every one lost. That may be a tragic “Sophie’s Choice,” but it’s also a powerful reason to save the 99 first and worry later about going back for the 1, rather than let all 100 die in order to stand on principle. For pro-choicers, it means that every time they focus on rape, they are effectively admitting that they are using a small number of hard cases to hide the fact that they can’t really defend the remaining 99% of abortions. Every Republican should be willing to accept a rape-and-incest compromise in order to make real progress on abortion, and be up front with voters about that – even pro-life Republicans who would, given their druthers, ultimately like to see all abortions in such cases outlawed.
Second, back in 1977, the (all-male) Supreme Court ruled that rape just wasn’t a bad enough crime to justify the death penalty – that it was “grossly disproportionate and excessive punishment for the crime of rape” and “a disproportionate penalty for the crime of raping an adult woman.”:
Rape is without doubt deserving of serious punishment; but in terms of moral depravity and of the injury to the person and to the public, it does not compare with murder, which does involve the unjustified taking of human life….rape, by definition, does not include the death of or even the serious injury to another person. The murderer kills; the rapist, if no more than that, does not. Life is over for the victim of the murderer; for the rape victim, life may not be nearly so happy as it was, but it is not over, and normally is not beyond repair.
In 2008, the Court extended that rule to say the rape of a child was also not bad enough for the death penalty. It takes a truly cold-hearted set of priorities to say that rape isn’t bad enough to kill the rapist, so let’s kill the child instead.* Democrats looking to press the rape issue should be forced to defend the inhumanity of this view.
It’s not unreasonable for pro-life Republicans to want to save the life of every innocent child, but a savvy political party must learn to meet the electorate half-way. A demonstrated willingness to do that in crafting legislation is the first step towards shaping a battlefield where we once again hold the high ground.
* – As a matter of policy, I do not support the death penalty for ordinary cases of murder or rape, but only for cases – such as terrorism or murder by organized crime – that demand killing in societal self-defense. But I see no basis whatsoever for a Constitutional rule that says rape isn’t bad enough to kill the rapist.