Friday, July 06, 2018

Abortion/Immigration Politics

Slate's William Saletan is wrong, in the short term, when in the wake of the retirement of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy he argues

Another justice, likewise suspected of pro-life sympathies, will take his place. Pundits and pro-choice activists are sounding the alarm that Roe will fall and half the states will ban abortion. It could happen. But it’s much more likely that these warnings, like those of nearly 30 years ago, don’t signal the end of the legal right to abortion. They signal the beginning of its revival.

Opponents of Kennedy's replacement need the vote of not only Maine senator Susan Collins, but also of all Democrats, including center-right senators Heitkamp, Donnelly, and Manchin, each of them from states easily won by Donald Trump.

The latter three are unlikely to vote en masse against the President's choice unless Collins does also, thus allowing them to claim some sort of bipartisan opposition to the nominee.  And the Maine senator simply will not take such a principled stand, as Saletan's colleagues Dahlia Lithwick and Mark Joseph Stern maintain.

However, Saletan's notion that there will be a shift toward the pro-choice position once it is clear that the right to an abortion has receded is more credible because "the laws of abortion politics bend." He explains

Most Americans are conflicted about abortion. They don’t like it, but they also don’t like the idea of banning it. In normal elections, these people focus on other issues. But when the court gets close to dismantling Roe, and when lawmakers start to look serious about banning abortion, ambivalent voters wake up. They start to notice, with concern, which candidates are pro-life. Some pro-life politicians end up losing their elections. Others hide or flee. The predicted frenzy of abortion bans turns into a frenzy of retreat.

I wrote a whole book about this, but I’ll boil it down here. The GOP faces three problems: a polling problem, a voting problem, and a politician problem.

The polling problem is that abortion is both a moral and a legal question. Lots of people who think abortion is wrong don’t like the idea of politicians, as a matter of law, telling women and families what to do. When Roe looks secure, these folks see the issue in terms of their moral qualms. But when Roe is in danger, they start to think more skeptically about whether the government should be involved.

The shift in views is compounded by a shift in intensity. Pro-choicers outnumber pro-lifers. But pro-lifers are more dedicated, and this gives them an advantage. In exit polls, when you zero in on the people who say abortion was their top voting issue, they’re more likely to be pro-life than pro-choice. That pro-life advantage diminishes, however, as the issue’s salience rises and the pool of abortion-driven voters increases. An influx of pro-choicers dilutes and eventually exceeds the pro-life faction. You can see this in presidential exit polls from 1984 to 2000. The larger the percentage of people who cast their ballots based on abortion, the smaller the pro-life advantage.

This is how pro-lifers undo themselves. When they accumulate enough justices to threaten Roe, they scare pro-choicers into voting on the issue. It’s no accident that in 1990, for the first time, the number of pro-choicers who made voting decisions based on abortion exceeded the number of pro-lifers who did so.

Together, the polling shift and the voting shift trigger a third problem: battlefield desertions. Some politicians who call themselves pro-life are willing to lose elections over the issue. But most are cowards. They don’t want the court to overturn Roe. They want to keep Roe as a punching bag and as a sandbag. Roe protects them from having to deliver on their promises to pro-life voters. It lets them fire up religious conservatives in elections without scaring suburbanites, libertarians, and younger voters who don’t want abortion to become illegal. When the court threatens Roe, this game unravels...

This probably will allow Democrats- gradually- to gain electoral parity with Republicans.

Alternatively and less likely, there will be one critical, dramatic election in which this plays out to the advantage of one Democrat. This is the principle by which Donald J. Trump got elected.

When- prior to 2015- immigration was only a minor issue nationally, it played to the advantage of Democrats.  Latinos and a few (very few) whites and blacks who took into account the different approach of the two parties toward immigration. Very few anti-immigration (or anti- illegal immigration) cared enough to bring the issue into focus.

But then someone got the strategically brilliant idea to bring anti-foreigner animus to the forefront, claiming Mexico was sending the USA rapists and individuals with "lots of problems," drugs, and crime.  When a large swath of the American people voted on the issue, they went with the right.

While mentioning Trump only once- and immigration not at all- Saletan is logically predicting the reverse with abortion.  When legal abortion becomes a paramount issue, either because it is threatened as Saletan expects or virtually eliminated as Lithwich/Stern believe, the issue will become salient with the left as well as the right.

That won't happen tomorrow, this year, or possibly even in time for its full impact by the 2020 election cycle.   It does not alleviate the need for Democrats, those enervated by support of  reproductive freedom or otherwise, to employ a vigorous inside-outside game to defeat President Trump's Supreme Court nominee.   But it does provide a little light at the end of a long and very dark tunnel.

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