Senator Lindsey Graham’s colleagues immediately dismissed his proposal to ban abortion after 15 weeks as a strategic mistake, but the GOP runs a greater risk by saying nothing and letting Democrats define the Republican stance on a major campaign issue.
No one respects a coward. The electorate knows that the conservative movement achieved its biggest victory in generations when the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade this summer. Doesn’t it look awfully suspicious to ignore the elephant in the room? Silence on abortion has helped Democrats paint Republicans as reactionary extremists with something to hide. What kind of message does that send to moderates? And what message does it send to conservatives that Republicans think it’s too controversial to defend something as reasonable as a 15-week abortion ban?
What are Republicans afraid will happen? When exceptions for rape and incest are included, a ban on abortion after 15 weeks is popular. As Graham mentioned, it’s a policy in alignment with much of the Western world, and it acknowledges the reality that babies at this stage of development feel pain. These are points that will resonate with people of conscience and goodwill.
If you listen carefully, you can actually hear whispers of concern from the Left about Graham’s bill. Why? They know that if they push back too hard, voters will realize that it is the Democrats who are outside the mainstream.
Graham’s proposal is only “extreme” to those who think any restriction on abortion is beyond the pale. To normal people, the Democratic Party’s official (if implicit) position of unlimited abortion-on-demand is repugnant. Democrats know this, which is why they resort to euphemisms like “women’s health care” and “choice” to describe what they support. They are never challenged with defending their real views because the media covers for them, even as Republicans are burdened with defending the most stringent restrictions around the country. It’s unfair, but it’s how the game is played.
Why don’t Republicans go on offense, instead? Many on the Right act as though a backlash to the Dobbs decision is inevitable. But it’s hard to tell if it could be otherwise because Republicans haven’t even tried pushing back on the Democrats’ abortion narrative. Why should Democrats have the last word? Democrats never play that way. For example, Democrats know that Republicans will accuse them of defunding police, but they aren’t letting Republicans have the last word on crime. Far from it. They are aggressively lying and posturing as big-time police defenders. It just might work, if Republicans don’t respond forcefully.
Unlike Democrats, Republicans don’t have to dissemble about crime or abortion. Democrats can’t even talk about abortion without having to downplay what an aborton entails with word games. Republicans have truth on their side. Why don’t they just talk to the country about the evil the Democrats are advocating?
The Republican Party seems to think that taking a stand would be to sacrifice the midterms for the sake of a cause, but they will earn more respect advancing a moral vision than by cowering in fear. Interestingly, it isn’t just establishment Republicans like Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) who are wary of Graham’s bill but also many on the MAGA Right who are ordinarily at odds with party leadership. Some accuse Graham of willful sabotage. Skepticism of Graham is certainly justified, given his track record. But knee-jerk backlash is self-defeating, especially for right-wingers who want the GOP to show more spine in the culture wars.
Whether Republicans like it or not, abortion is one of the top issues in this election. Democrats are going to say that the GOP wants a total ban, and if Republicans do not rebut these attacks, many will find them convincing. Instead of retreating, Republicans need to embrace the issue and force Democrats to defend the indefensible in front of the entire nation. It will pay dividends in November, and it’s also the right thing to do.