Democrats seize abortion issue

Contributions to Democratic candidates and abortion-rights groups have spiked sharply. Democratic pollster Jeff Horwitt says, “How (abortion) plays out in November is to be determined, but for now, it is injecting some much-needed enthusiasm into parts of the Democratic coalition.”

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Protests Continue As U.S. Supreme Court Issues Final Opinions For The Term

Abortion rights activists protest in the street near the U.S. Supreme Court on the last day of their term on June 30.

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After the Supreme Court reversed the Roe decision and ended a national right to abortion, President Joe Biden quickly seized the political opening. “This fall, Roe is on the ballot,” he insisted. “Voters need to make their voices heard.”

Every survey agrees that Democrats have a winning issue. USA Today found that 61% of voters oppose overturning Roe, with only 28% supporting the court. According to Gallup, 55% call themselves “pro-choice,” with 39% identifying as “pro-life.”

But here’s the rub: Biden’s message might be popular, but the messenger is not. In an average of national polls, Biden has sunk to a favorable rating of 39.6%. That’s more than 2 points below Donald Trump at the same stage of his presidency, and almost 7 points below Barack Obama.

More seriously, with inflation raging out of control, and aftershocks from the pandemic still rippling through peoples’ lives, 7 in 10 Americans say the country is headed down the “wrong track,” with only 22% believing we are going in the “right direction.” When Biden told the Associated Press that the country is “really, really down,” he was probably understating the pessimism.

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So here’s the question: Can the president and the Democrats change the subject from the price of gas to the rights of women? Can they convince voters — this fall and in 2024 — to bury their disappointment with the current administration and focus on their fears of the last one?

The Democratic game plan is already clear: Use the abortion issue to remind swing voters why they abandoned Trump. That’s why party talking points use words like “extremism” and “dangerous” as often as possible. And why they are highlighting the most outlandish Republican proposals for what happens next — Mike Pence wanting to ban all abortions nationwide, or Justice Clarence Thomas threatening to outlaw contraception and same-sex marriage.

“This is insanity,” came a typical statement from Rep. Tim Ryan, the Democratic nominee for Ohio’s open Senate seat. “This level of extremism is not going to play in Ohio.”

Cheri Beasley, running for the Senate in North Carolina, warned, “I hope you all know that this doesn’t end this, that the threats don’t stop here.”

Contributions to Democratic candidates and abortion-rights groups have spiked sharply, and Democratic pollster Jeff Horwitt tells NBC, “How (abortion) plays out in November is to be determined, but for now, it is injecting some much-needed enthusiasm into parts of the Democratic coalition.”

For now.

But two huge obstacles stand in the Democrats’ way, beyond the historical trend that a president’s party almost always loses Congressional seats in off-year elections. The first is that Democrats have been far less successful than Republicans in using the Supreme Court as an issue to crystalize the stakes in an election and energize the party’s base.

Look at 2016. Four out of five evangelical Christians backed Trump, even though he’d been married three times, never went to church and boasted about his sexual escapades. One key reason was that he made a promise — a promise he kept — to pack the federal courts with judges who would overturn the Roe decision. By contrast, many liberals abandoned the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, because she wasn’t pure enough on their issues, no matter who she would appoint to the court.

Conservatives embraced Trump despite his flaws, because they understood elections have consequences. Many liberals, failing to grasp that basic principle of politics, rejected Clinton because of her blemishes. As a result, they bear some of the blame for the demise of Roe.

Instead of learning from their grievous errors, those liberals seem poised to repeat them. A Washington Post headline blares, “Frustration, anger rising among Democrats over caution on abortion,” and the story quotes leftists like Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez denouncing Biden for a litany of sins, including his failure to back schemes that would rebalance the court with added judges or end the filibuster and pass legislation enshrining abortion rights in federal law.

The national mood is an even bigger hurdle. Many people might feel passionately about the abortion issue on both sides, but it remains an abstraction. Inflation affects every family every day. That’s why an NBC survey finds only 33% approving of Biden’s handling of the economy, and 65% saying their family’s income is falling behind the cost of living.

Abortion looks like a potent weapon for Biden and the Democrats. But is it enough to sway voters who feel “really, really down”? Probably not.

Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University.

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