“This may be the earliest that a presidential candidate has ever pivoted to the general election,” declared conservative writer John Podhoretz on the Commentary podcast.
He was referring to Donald Trump’s much-ballyhooed interview on Meet The Press on Sunday, in which the former president called a six-week abortion ban “a terrible mistake,” and declined to say where he stood regarding how late you can get an abortion, or whether the issue should be decided at the state or federal level. Instead, Trump insisted he would “…sit down with both sides and I’d negotiate something, and we’ll end up with peace on that issue for the first time in 52 years.”
On Meet The Press in 1999, Trump (who was then in his early 50s) declared “I am very pro-choice.” Trump’s subsequent alleged conversion, he explained on his way to the 2016 GOP nomination, came after watching a family who was going to abort instead decide not to—and then, he saw that this child became “a total superstar.”
Nobody really believed this explanation. Writing for The Daily Caller in 2016, I warned that Trump had “zero social conservative moorings” and that “his worldview… seems diametrically opposed to that of the pro-life movement…”
A robust debate during the Republican primary (see Ted Cruz’s entire 2016 presidential campaign rationale) revolved around whether Trump was actually a true believer. But once Trump became the nominee, it was him versus Hillary—making him the lesser of two evils. And then, once Trump won the presidency, he surprised many of us by nominating three conservative Supreme Court Justices who went on to help overturn Roe v. Wade.
At that point, it looked like the bet social conservatives made on Trump had paid off.
This is where things get interesting. Overturning Roe simply returned the matter of abortion back to the states. And even in red states, every time abortion has been on the ballot since Roe was overturned, the side advocating for abortion rights has won.
Some conservative activists are starting to ask: What was the point of overturning Roe, if every state who gets a vote decides to keep abortion legal?
This realization is setting in at the same time Donald Trump is taking a moderate, if confusingly vague, stance on abortion.
At the same time, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis—a pro-life champion—is attempting to defeat Trump in a Republican primary, and Trump appears to be coasting to victory in Iowa on the backs of evangelicals.
Even more frustrating is the fact that, although Trump’s attack on Florida’s “Heartbeat Protection Act” could be, in the words of National Review’s John McCormack, “doing real and deadly damage to the pro-life cause,” it is probably politically wise… for Donald Trump.
When Trump says that conservatives who oppose exceptions in the case of abortion and rape are “not going to win on this issue,” he’s making a sound strategic prediction, if not an empirically correct observation (it should be noted, however, that the Florida law does include exceptions).
This is to say that, as Podhoretz’s quote about pivoting to the general election suggests, Trump’s softening position on abortion would likely help him in a general election, whereas DeSantis’ embrace of a six-week position could plausibly sink him in a general election (cue the “war on women” ads).
For conservatives, this is a bitter pill to swallow. Just as Trump’s refusal to embrace (in my view, responsible) conservative positions like entitlement reform made it harder for Democrats to demagogue Social Security cuts, Trump’s abortion comments will play better in a general election than DeSantis’ pro-life position.
This raises an interesting question: Does it even matter if you win elections (and court cases) if your policy preferences lose popularity (or are simply abandoned)?
This conundrum is perhaps the inevitable result of a bargain Republicans made with the devil back in 2016.
The deal implied that conservatives would get many of their desires, as long as they agreed to look the other way regarding Trump’s character and personal behavior (for example, paying off porn stars), as well as his lack of a deeply committed (or even coherent) conservative political philosophy.
When it comes to abortion, one could still plausibly argue that the deal paid off for conservatives. But we are likely entering into a phase of diminished returns. And at some point, Trump’s presidency might even be a net-negative for pro-lifers.
If that ever happens, Republicans (including all those Ron DeSantis stans) will have no one to blame but themselves.
As the poem goes, you knew damn well he was a snake before you took him in.