The Democratic Party’s first major bid to save abortion rights since the leak of the Supreme Court’s draft opinion did more to expose the party’s helplessness in the face of Roe v. Wade’s possible demise than to unleash the kind of generational battle that conservatives mounted to threaten the landmark ruling.
Senate Democratic leaders knew their vote Wednesday to codify the 1973 Supreme Court decision into law would fail. But ahead of a possible court decision abolishing the constitutional right to end a pregnancy, Democrats hope the symbolism of the vote will help them reframe the stakes of November’s midterm elections, setting up a contrast with what they believe is a coming example of conservative extremism. They want to ignite a backlash to such a ruling in order to energize their prospects in a midterm environment that doesn’t look good for their party.
“Every senator will have to vote and every, every American will see how they voted,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, told reporters before the measure went down by a vote of 49-51. “And I believe the Republican Party, the MAGA Republican Party, will suffer the consequences electorally when the American people see that.”
Democrats are using the power they do have, much of which is symbolic, to highlight a critical division in the country, one they believe has the potential to move millions of voters.
Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, told CNN’s “New Day” on Wednesday, for instance, that the goal was to “get the attention of the electorate.”
Rep. Diana DeGette, a Colorado Democrat who’s the co-leader of the House Pro-Choice Caucus, told CNN’s Jake Tapper that abortion could define the midterm elections.
“The voters of America support Roe v. Wade by an overwhelming majority,” DeGette said. “So the voters are going to have to decide in November who they want representing them in the House and in the Senate, and I think they are going to vote for pro-choice candidates.”
According to CNN’s recent polling, 66% of Americans say Roe v. Wade should not be completely struck down, and 59% would support Congress passing legislation to establish a nationwide right to abortion.
Millions of Americans have sincere convictions about abortion, whether it’s about a woman’s right to control her own body or about protecting what some see as a sacred life.
But it remains an untested question whether a Supreme Court rejection of Roe v. Wade will unleash a huge uprising from liberal voters or energize conservatives more as anti-abortion activists seek tougher restrictions. And with voters facing high inflation, soaring gas prices and other knock-on impacts of the pandemic, it is far from clear that abortion will be the top issue in November.
Wednesday’s vote was yet another manifestation of the Democratic Party’s inability to implement its full agenda – also evident in the failure so far of President Joe Biden’s sweeping social spending and climate change bill. It was the same story when Biden declared that new voting rights laws were vital to counter GOP voter suppression in the states, but Democrats failed to get any meaningful measures into law.
On abortion, like some gun safety measures, Democrats appear to have majority public support on their side, but they have failed to pass laws to enshrine their beliefs. This failure also reflects Republicans’ skill in using the limits of the US political system to their advantage and their ruthlessness in using power when they hold it – even if it means crushing norms and traditions.
Despite controlling every lever of political power in Washington – the House, the Senate and the White House – Democrats lack the capacity to do an end run around an increasingly unrestrained conservative court majority on abortion. That is partly because of the Senate filibuster, which requires a 60-vote supermajority to pass major bills.
But Democrats could not even get all of their own members on board. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a familiar holdout, voted against the bill to preserve abortion access nationwide because he said it went much further than Roe v. Wade and ended some restrictions on the procedure in some conservative states. Two Republicans who do support abortion rights, Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine, also voted against it and are writing their own bill, which will also likely fail to surmount the filibuster.
Democratic efforts pale in comparison with conservative anti-abortion movement
The failed vote also highlighted the stunning success of the decades-long movement to build a Supreme Court majority that appears likely to engineer a massive shift in the rights of women by overturning Roe.
A broad interlocking network of campaign groups, social and religious activists, local and national candidates and judicial appointees committed to ending abortion helped build that conservative majority. And multiple Republican-run states have legislation already in place to ban abortion – some without exceptions for rape and incest – that will kick in immediately if the Supreme Court overturns that 1973 ruling.
For all the Democratic angst over the fate of Roe, the party has never been able to replicate the level of passion on the issue that has pulsated through Republican ranks.
Still, to many voters, the possibility of Supreme Court action is sufficiently new and politically raw that Republicans are treading carefully to avoid triggering the backlash liberals hope to stir.
That was evident in the hurried effort this week to walk back Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s comment in USA Today that it was “possible” a future GOP-led Senate could vote to outlaw abortion. Reporters repeatedly pressed him on that comment Wednesday, but he has still failed to mend an apparent slip that could hurt Republicans in campaigns.
“Let me try it one more time,” the Kentucky Republican said. “I think the sentiment in my conference is for this issue to be dealt with at the state level if we are, in fact, confronted with a final Supreme Court decision that throws this issue back into democratic processes.”
That’s not an answer that will get McConnell or his fellow Republicans off the political hook.
VP slams the Senate’s ‘failure’
In the absence of successful legislating, there were scenes of rare emotion Wednesday on Capitol Hill, as Democrats suggested Republicans are planning to ban abortion, even in liberal states, if they win the midterm elections. About two dozen progressive House Democrats marched to the Senate before the vote, chanting, “My body, my decision!” Vice President Kamala Harris accused Republicans of extremism. “Sadly, the Senate failed to stand in defense of a woman’s right to make decisions about her own body,” she said.
House Republicans, meanwhile, accused Democrats of pushing to legislate abortion “on demand” to end pregnancies in the ninth month. There are significant inaccuracies or exaggerations in the statements of both sides. But the political cacophony over the issue makes it exceedingly difficult for voters who are not constantly following the issue to sort it all out. And given today’s political polarization, any idea that the states can easily settle the debate appears fanciful.
After the Senate vote, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee issued a statement warning of the need for the party to maintain and expand its majorities in November.
“If Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans win in November, they will make abortion illegal across the country without exceptions, impose new, cruel, and punishing restrictions on women, and take away women’s rights to make our own decisions about our health care,” spokesperson Nora Keefe wrote.
There’s no mistaking the Democratic fury and fear following the leak of Justice Samuel Alito’s draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade, which is not final until the court announces a decision and so could still change. But so far, there is little sign the party and the wider liberal movement have the infrastructure in place to mount an effective counterpunch to what would be one of the conservative movement’s greatest victories.
That unpreparedness is political malpractice, since the anti-abortion movement’s goals have been known for decades as the GOP has created the political conditions to achieve them.