As the 2022 election campaign heats up, we are being treated to the ugly spectacle of candidates who positioned themselves as solidly pro-life throughout their political careers, suddenly running like scalded dogs from the pro-life position. In particular, the Republican candidate in Arizona’s senate contest, Blake Masters, has been criticized for scrubbing his campaign website of the abortion positions he has previously championed.
Tuesday, Jake Tapper’s show, The Lead, talked about this subject to his audience of dozens with one of his guests, National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru. This is how the conversation went.
TAPPER: What do you make of that? Because I’ve seen some anti-abortion columnists and activists expressing distress that some of these nominees, like Blake Masters, are now backing off or at least scrubbing from their websites their very strong anti-abortion positions.
PONNURU: I think the entire Republican Party was unprepared for actually winning the fight at the Supreme Court over abortion after 50 years. They’d been warned. They’d been put on notice for a long time. But very few of them were prepared to say anything sensible about it. Some of them had been stuck in positions that were theoretical, that were notional, that never had to be put to the political test in an election, and its showing right now. I think you’re doing a lot of pro-life candidates who are doing extremely well in some of these battleground states. The governor of Ohio, for example, pro-lifer, signed pro-life legislation, he’s doing great. But these other candidates who have wobbled, who stake out a real hard right position that’s not in line with public opinion and then can’t figure out a way to emphasize where they have common ground with most voters? They’re facing trouble.
TAPPER: I’ve seen some interviews with Republicans who, you know, have in the past been very, very proud of their anti-abortion positions and now that its not theoretical, as you say, Ramesh, kind of run away from that. They have to be pinned down and pinned down and pinned down before they admit a position that they said when it was theoretical.
PONNURU: And that’s another part of the problem, it’s not just the Republicans who are saying I’m now for things politically, it’s the ones who are ducking and covering. I think, though, that Republicans ought to on offense on this issue. They ought to reintroduce a federal ban on 20-week abortion. That’s an issue where almost all Republicans are united, you sometimes split Democrats on that issue. We need to recenter this conversation in a way that emphasizes the places where they are in step with public opinion not the places where they are out of step.
On the one hand, I agree with the premise that you should know how to explain and defend your positions to the electorate you wish to represent. A candidate that finds themselves unable to defend the positions that got them the nomination is not someone who needs to be elected. On the other hand, I think the idea that candidates should stake out positions based on public opinion is nonsense. I don’t have a problem using public opinion to identify possible issues (think Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America), but to moderate the defense of human life based on polling is reprehensible. One of these deficits, the inability to articulate reasoning for a position, can be overcome by training. The other scenario, hiding behind public opinion, belies a lack of character.
As Ronald Reagan said, we need bold colors, not pale pastels. Muddying stances on important issues to avoid a political fight is not something we should encourage.
I suppose my real problem with the strategy proposed by Ponnuru is that we worked for 50 years to make abortion a state issue. Passing federal legislation to try to help grifters and weaklings win elections doesn’t make sense to me. If Congress can pass a law banning abortion at 20 weeks, then it can pass on protecting abortion up until 20 weeks. If we ever thought it was a good idea to pass a federal law just to give candidates protection from their own positions, then at least adopt one that is meaningful. For example, most European countries ban abortion after about 14 weeks. If we followed that example, at least then, a candidate could say, “I support the same abortion laws in force in most of Europe.”
In my view, the federal 20-week abortion ban is little short of surreal. It just assumes that pro-life voters will turn out, knock on doors, and man phonebanks for candidates who are trying to run from their previous positions. It also assumes that someone who is pro-abortion as their primary motivation will vote for someone who is in favor of banning most, but not all, abortions.
In all of this, I can’t escape the feeling that for most of Conservative, Inc., abortion was never about dead babies. It was always a grift. It was used to raise campaign contributions (“Imma gonna defund Planned Parenthood”) from the rubes; it was used to attack Democrats. It was a game. Now that it is real, it is perceived as a hindrance, not an accomplishment.
There is a Peyton Manning skit from Saturday Night Live back when that show attempted to be funny called “Mentor.” In it, Manning coaches a group of pre-teens on teamwork using football as a medium. At one point, Manning scolds a hapless player with, “What’s wrong with you? Do you want to lose?”
When it comes to professional conservatives, the answer is yes.