The Republican Albatross
I didn’t watch this week’s Republican presidential debate. The clips that I’ve seen make me think that was a pretty good choice.
Vivek Ramaswamy figured prominently in two frequently repeated moments. He went full Putinista (never go full Putinista!) in one monologue filled with alternative facts, calling Ukraine’s President Zelensky a “nazi” and essentially suggesting that Ukraine should hand over its eastern regions to Russia. In another, he called out Nikki Haley’s daughter for having a TikTok account.
After watching Nikki Haley respond by calling Ramaswamy “scum,” I really hope that I am able to vote for her next spring.
Those pugilistic moments aside, one of the most telling moments was from Tim Scott. The other South Carolinian responded to a question about “the path forward” on abortion by saying that he favored a national ban.
“I’m 100 percent pro-life,” Scott answered. “I have a 100 percent pro-life voting record. I would certainly, as president of the United States, have a 15-week national limit. I would not allow states like California, Illinois, and New York, to have abortion up until the day of birth.”
Scott may not have paid attention to the elections earlier this week, but his 15-week plan is a losing proposition. As I discussed on Thursday, Democrats flipped both houses of the Virginia legislature after Gov. Youngkin proposed a [wait for it] 15-week limit, and anti-abortion referendums have failed everywhere they’ve been tried since the Supreme Court handed down the Dobbs decision.
I’m pro-life as well, but even I have to admit that Tim Scott is badly out of step with the national mood on abortion. He’s the wrong man at the wrong time.
But honestly, abortion is only one issue where the Republican Party is out of step with public opinion. Take guns, for example. (Not really, because the Second Amendment won’t allow you to take them. [Insert rimshot here]). Again, I’m a pro-Second Amendment person, but the difficult pill to swallow is that Republicans are out of step with the majority of voters on just about every gun question you can imagine.
Immigration is another such issue. Republicans tend to be hardline on immigration, with many on the far right wanting further limits even on legal immigration, But Americans in general are bullish on immigration by a large margin and majorities have long supported immigration reform with a pathway to citizenship even as voters disapprove of Biden’s handling of the immigration issue.
To be fair, Democrats are out of step on some issues as well. Voters tend to think that Republicans are better on the economy and the segment of the Democratic Party that favors Hamas is a shrill minority. There are others as well, but the issue that is an 800-pound gorilla is the abortion issue.
Tim Scott may be speaking his heart when he calls for a 15-week abortion ban but he is leading his party into an ambush. It’s not going to happen.
Nikki Haley, who is also pro-life, had a much better answer than Scott. I won’t repeat her entire answer, but you can hear the full segment in context here and I definitely recommend listening to it.
“When it comes to the federal law, which is what’s being debated here, be honest,” Haley said. “It’s going to take 60 Senate votes, a majority of the House, and a president to sign it. We haven’t had 60 Senate votes in over 100 years. We might have 45 pro-life senators. So no Republican president can ban abortions any more than a Democrat president can ban these state laws [that restrict abortion].”
“So let’s find consensus,” she continued. “Let’s agree on how we can ban late-term abortions. Let’s make sure we encourage adoptions and good-quality adoptions. Let’s make contraception accessible. Let’s make sure that none of these state laws put a woman in jail or give her the death penalty for getting an abortion. Let’s focus on how to save as many babies as we can and support as many moms as we can. And stop the judgment. We don’t need to divide America on this issue anymore.”
Can I get an amen?
Haley’s answer closely mirrors my own opinions on the issue. I’m pro-life and, in a perfect world, there would be no abortions. We don’t live in a perfect world, however, and math dictates that a hardline stance on an abortion ban is doomed to fail. Tim Scott’s position is the worst of both worlds in that it is an impossible promise to keep and one that most Americans don’t want to be kept.
Accepting that reality, we should work to make abortion unnecessary by resolving the problems that make women feel that they need to get an abortion. The two biggest reasons cited were that a baby would interfere with the mother’s career/education and that the mother could not afford a baby. That means that the pro-life movement needs to start looking at issues like childcare, children’s healthcare, and support for single and poor mothers.
I refuse to believe that it is a pro-life position to ban abortion and simply tell mothers, “Good luck with the rest of your life.” That’s the difference between truly being pro-life and just being anti-abortion.
Nikki Haley’s answer has a chance of defusing the abortion bomb. If recent history is any indication, Tim Scott’s answer would cause the abortion bomb to blow up in Republican faces.
The fundamental error that both parties make is in trying to force their fringe agendas on the entire country. We’ve seen the pattern several times in which one party gains power and goes hog wild. They act like they want to jam through their entire partisan Christmas list quickly before they get kicked out. This angers moderate voters and gets the party promptly kicked out of power.
I’m reminded of Arthur Brooks’s advice that it’s easier to get involved on an issue that people care about than to get them to care about your issues. In other words, the parties need to find issues that meet voters where they are rather than trying to force their opinions on the electorate.
Brooks said that political parties, particularly conservative ones, should be “for people, not against things.” Yet conservative politics is still characterized by railing against abstractions from Obamacare to illegal immigration to Hunter Biden. These aren’t issues that swing voters care deeply about.
The problem with this approach is that the majority party can’t get everything it wants. Of course, the majority can’t get everything it wants anyway because we have checks and balances built into the system that prevent tyranny by the majority. But partisan voters don’t understand this and assume that when their wish list isn’t fulfilled it’s because traitors are in their midst.
A good recent example of this involves Joe Manchin, the West Virginia Democrat who just announced his retirement from the Senate. In 2021 and 2022, Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) came into harsh criticism from the left because they didn’t jump on board with a number of popular (to the left) bills. Progressive Democrats got predictable upset and accused them of disloyalty to the party.
My take is different. I think that Manchin and Sinema probably were a major reason that the 2022 midterms weren’t a total disaster for the Democrats. These two courageous senators put the brakes on the partisan train and moderated their party. That paid off in a number of close races including a squeaker of a gubernatorial race in [wait for it] Arizona.
No good deed goes unpunished, however. Kyrsten Sinema, who I’m old enough to remember was attacked by Republicans for being a radical socialist, became an independent and will probably be leaving the Senate. Joe Manchin announced his retirement from the Senate yesterday. The Senate and the Democratic Party will be worse off for having lost these two moderate voices. The Democratic Party will likely lose one or both Senate seats as well as they nominate hardline progressives in a moderate and a red state.
In a more perfect world, Joe Manchin would have been a good candidate for president. He is as close to any politician to the ideological center of the country, but as such, he’s not a good fit for either party. He could never be nominated as either a Democrat or a Republican by fringe primary voters.
The best hope for the Democrats is that Republicans will make the same mistake of overplaying their hand. The GOP has endured a string of embarrassing and unnecessary losses when it nominated bad candidates who repelled swing voters. A candidate like Dr. Oz, Herschel Walker, or Kari Lake might help Democrats to retain those vulnerable seats.
And that brings us back to abortion. One of the issues where the Republicans have the worst track record. Will the party’s voters nominate a Tim Scott favoring abortion bans or a Nikki Haley who is ready to move on to other issues? The choice could determine the outcome of these and other races.
As I close, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one other issue where Republicans are out of the mainstream. Donald Trump is popular within the GOP, but his favorability hovers at about 40 percent nationally. The nation is begging Republican voters not to nominate The Former Guy again.
As I write this, Joe Biden’s approval is almost identical to Trump’s at 38 percent, but there are key differences. One is that progressives are unhappy with Biden because he isn’t far enough to the left. These unhappy Democrats are not going to vote for Trump and after 2016 they are unlikely to stay home.
Another difference is that Republicans have options, Democrats don’t. Aside from the fact that Biden is president and heads the party, Democrats don’t really have anyone on the bench who could be nominated and keep the party’s coalition together. A candidate far enough left to please the progressives would hemorrhage moderate voters.
There’s an old saying that something that weighs you down is an “albatross around your neck.” The phrase reportedly goes back to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” in which a sailor kills one of the friendly sea birds and is punished by having to wear the carcass around his neck. The phrase isn’t used a lot anymore, but Republicans have not one but two big, smelly albatrosses around their neck that are weighing down their performance and their chances for 2024.
If Republicans want to break their losing streak, my advice is to remove the albatrosses that they have hung around their collective necks. The party needs to moderate its position on abortion (or better yet, just stop talking about it) and it needs to dump Trump and the MAGA radicals. My gut instinct is that they won’t do either.