How John Roberts Saved the GOP (and Sparked Its Civil War) newsusface

Kudos to Chief Justice John Roberts for corralling the three Trump-nominated pro-life justices to leave the abortion pill alone for now, saving the GOP from another Roe-like disaster.

Eighty percent of voters don’t like the Dobbs decision that ended the constitutional right to an abortion, a number that establishes a confrontation within the GOP between electoral realists and pro-life activists that is confounding the party’s presidential candidates.

When the 7-2 SCOTUS decision was handed down—protecting access and availability in states where it is legal to take the two-dose pill that ends a pregnancy up to 10 weeks—many Republican lawmakers quietly breathed a sigh of relief. Any other decision would have further inflamed an electorate still furious over losing Roe.

It is welcome news that Roberts managed to regain some control over the Court’s far-right faction, marginalizing Clarence Thomas and an angry Samuel Alito, who wrote the Dobbs decision that overturned nearly a half-century of legal protection for abortion. Roberts was able to cordon off the extremists who were willing to upend the FDA—and the entire drug regulatory process—to remove the abortion pill from the marketplace.

Crisis averted, but the damage done by the Roberts court can’t easily be undone.

Making her bid as the sole woman so far in the GOP field, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley spoke at the Virginia headquarters of the Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America’s office on Tuesday. Haley said the next president will have to find “national consensus” on the issue, and that she believes there is a federal role on abortion, but didn’t identify what that might be.

Kellyanne Conway, back in her pre-Trump role as a GOP pollster, greeted Republican donors at a Nashville retreat earlier this month with a poll that shows 80 percent of voters don’t like the Dobbs decision that overturned Roe. Meanwhile, the party’s activist base is demanding a federal ban on abortion while pushing for more restrictive laws on the state level.

Mifepristone, the first medication in a medical abortion, is prepared for a patient at Alamo Women’s Clinic in Carbondale, Illinois, on April 20, 2023.

Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters

The solution? Don’t talk about it, and if pressed, stress states’ rights, then pivot to other cultural issues like parental rights, crime and wokeness, in whatever order works best.

In other words, there’s no plan.

A party that ran multiple elections over multiple decades with extraordinary unanimity on abortion is now floundering to seek consensus. “It’s very easy to be united in opposition to something,” says Christine Matthews, a Republican pollster, who is pro-choice. Finding agreement is harder, but after listening to Haley outline her pro-life position, Matthews’ takeaway was that a 15-week abortion ban could be the common ground where both sides could settle.

Republican pollster Whit Ayres identifies the 15-week ban as “the sweet spot nationally” for Republicans. (Haley signed a 20-week ban when she was governor.)

“It’s difficult for me to give advice because I think they should be consistent, and keep government out of it,” Matthews told The Daily Beast. “The Republican base wants to restrict abortion, and they (the candidates) don’t want anybody to outmaneuver them on the right. But there shouldn’t be a national ruling.”

Conway’s polling stunned the GOP attendees at the donor retreat, but those numbers won’t change anybody’s mind in states where Republicans have super-majorities. “They’re not responsive because they get elected in the primaries,” says Matthews, and the activists rule the primaries. In several states where abortion is percolating up, most notably in Ohio, Republican lawmakers are changing the threshold to make it harder for voters collecting signatures to get on the ballot in the 2024 election to secure abortion rights.

“This is a horror movie with lots of sequels,” says Jim Kessler with Third Way, a centrist Democratic group. “In 2024, we will have the first presidential election where the president’s position could make a visceral difference in a woman’s life. We’re seeing tremors out there,” the aftershocks of the political earthquake caused by the overturning of Roe last year. The 2020 midterms were the best for Democrats since FDR; voters in Kansas, a red state, overwhelmingly secured abortion rights last year; and last month, voters in Wisconsin came out in record numbers to support a state Supreme Court justice who committed to tossing out an 1849 abortion ban.

Republican presidential candidate and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley speaks during a campaign town hall meeting in Bedford, New Hampshire, on April 26, 2023.

Brian Snyder/Reuters

One out of five women will have an abortion in their lifetime, and according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, most reproductive-aged women (58 percent) know someone who has had an abortion, with 68 percent of those women knowing more than one person.

“This is an issue where Republicans can’t hide,” says Kessler. “They try to bring cultural issues to the forefront, particularly on trans-people. What they’re really trying to do is distract from abortion.”

A party that ran multiple elections over multiple decades with extraordinary unanimity on abortion is now floundering to seek consensus.

The race to the right is not just about legalizing abortion, it’s about criminalizing abortion. Taking it from a constitutional right to a crime is a non-starter in a general election in a country where supermajorities want abortion to be legal (with common sense restrictions), and 80 percent are not happy with the Supreme Court’s ruling on Roe.

“Leaving it to the states is the best they can do,” says Kessler, and that’s the position that Trump has staked out.

The Susan B. Anthony anti-abortion group calls Trump’s view a “morally indefensible position for a self-proclaimed pro-life presidential candidate.” They want a 15-week national ban.

The ex-president did not respond to the group that was once his ally, and he must be annoyed that the activists he so pleased by appointing three pro-life judges to the Supreme Court are not satisfied and are, in fact, pushing for more than anyone with national aspirations can comfortably promise.

So, he changed the topic, as only Trump can do, saying that he might boycott the Republican debates, two of which are already scheduled—one in Milwaukee in August, and a second one in September at the Reagan Library in California.

“I see that everybody is talking about the Republican Debates, but nobody got my approval, or the approval of the Trump Campaign, before announcing them,” Trump wrote on Truth Social. “When you’re leading by seemingly insurmountable numbers, and you have hostile Networks with angry, TRUMP & MAGA hating anchors asking the ‘questions,’ why subject yourself to being libeled and abused?”

He’s got a point, and for someone who regularly threatened to undo debate schedules in 2016 and 2020, we’ve seen this movie before.

The Supreme Court’s ruling on Roe vaulted an issue from the theoretical to the immediate, and it threatens to turn the primary race into a competition of “can you top this” on abortion restrictions “except for Trump,” says Kessler, who insists that at least in staking out his stance on an issue where Republicans cannot win, Trump is “smarter than they are.”

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