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Politicians need the middle to win. It’s getting harder for them to find it.


It’s not easy leading a political party these days. In a world where the expectation is that political positions are binary, with nuance not allowed, trying to come up with a one-size-fits-all position, be it on Middle East policy or reproductive rights, is quite the challenge.

No longer can someone paper over an actual point of view with the “spirit” of a political position. President Joe Biden has long been a supporter of Israel, but that hasn’t bought him much time with a Democratic base that’s growing increasingly skeptical of the Israeli government’s ability to carry out a just war.

And that brings me to former President Donald Trump’s attempts to soften opposition to him over the rise of restrictive abortion laws around the country.

Ironically, Trump’s controversial position shouldn’t, in theory, be controversial in the GOP. Trump is simply espousing what the party said it supported for decades before the Supreme Court’s 2022 Dobbs decision: Leave it to the states. But abortion conservatives want to go further with a federal limit. As is now fairly clear, simply returning the decision over reproductive rights to the states wasn’t really the goal of the anti-abortion movement pre-Dobbs. The goal was to roll back access to abortion, in whatever expedient way they could find.

Yet saying that last sentence as directly as I wrote it is unpopular. Had the GOP owned the idea of rolling back access more directly, instead of hiding behind its states-rights position, it would most likely been forced to reckon with its unpopular abortion position sooner.

But here we are, and Trump is learning the hard way that there is no middle ground on abortion inside the GOP, at least not in a post-Dobbs world. The country is quickly dividing into two camps on abortion rights: pro-access and anti-access. Pre-Dobbs, you could argue, there was a middle ground around access to abortion up until viability, which is about 24 weeks. But Dobbs changed the policy boundaries of what was possible, taking away elusive middle ground.

If states were debating access to abortion with 12- or 15- or 24-week limits as the different potential floors — deciding which of those three paths to take — then perhaps Trump’s “let the states decide” position would be seen as trying to find a middle ground. But that isn’t what has happened. A number of states, including large and diverse states like Texas and Florida, have passed unpopular and restrictive abortion laws — and it has led a lot of voters to suddenly feel like political activists. Before Dobbs, many Americans took for granted their equal right to reproductive health care no matter what states they lived in.

It’s clear what Trump is trying to do. He’s hoping that he can separate himself from the most restrictive positions on the issue. It’s striking that as nervous as Trump is that this issue could harm his chances at a second term, he didn’t go as far as supporting the ballot initiative in Florida that would essentially codify the Roe v. Wade standard in the state’s constitution. Perhaps he eventually will, if he thinks the gender gap is growing the wrong way for him.

There’s no doubt Trump was trying to replicate the rhetorical inoculation he effectively pulled off on the issue of entitlements back in 2016. He has come out against proposals to limit or slow the growth of these programs even as his party, essentially, still sees itself as the keeper of the “let’s shrink government” flame. With Trump in charge of the party, not touching entitlements is the GOP position — but it’s clear the position goes away the second Trump does, because so many elected Republicans decided to run for office under the guise of fiscal restraint.

Trump is clearly uncomfortable with any abortion restriction that is less than 15 or 16 weeks, but not enough to just say it that directly. He has hinted at it, saying he thought Florida’s six-week ban went too far. As a Florida resident, Trump will be able to choose on the ballot this fall between either an unpopular restrictive law or what the law was before his remodeled Supreme Court decided to relitigate the issue.

Trump can’t bring himself to even say something like “I personally support this restrictive law, but the country/state isn’t ready.” He could also word it like “I think Florida should change its law to 15 weeks, but I can’t vote for restoring Roe.”

I’m not sure which would be worse for Trump. But ultimately, I do think he will use the Florida ballot measure as his own barometer for all of us to see how nervous he is about the issue’s costing him another term.

In 2016, voters who didn’t trust the GOP on entitlements decided to trust Trump on the issue. There was enough cultural overlap for these older voters to give him a chance to keep the Social Security promise.

Are there enough women who care about abortion rights to trust Trump even if his party has acted another way? I’m skeptical. And the less Trump fights the six- or eight-week bans publicly, the less credible his compromise position will look. When push came to shove, Trump aligned himself with the party’s most restrictive abortion activists, and now he sees the political problem this has created. I’m not sure this is a political trap that even Houdini himself could escape. How does he distance himself from the decision to appoint the three Supreme Court justices that led to the overturning of Roe? He can do that only if he admits the justices weren’t his idea but something he outsourced. But if he admits that, then he’s admitting he somehow transacted judiciary seats for political support. It’s quite the slippery slope!

Both candidates would love to avoid talking about Gaza, and Trump would love nothing more than to stop discussing abortion, as well. The more either candidate talks about these issues, the more trouble they end up in. Ultimately, as many readers already know, I view the Dobbs decision as existential — and it’s most likely papering over lots of other divides in this country, because many affected voters view abortion rights as fundamental. And when an issue is fundamental for the way people live, they’ll vote on it over and above many other issues.

Why these abortion ballot measures will pass

As I was finishing up the column above, the Arizona Supreme Court was ruling that a 123-year-old abortion ban was now the law of the state. Meanwhile, the state is likely to have a referendum this fall to determine whether access to abortion should be guaranteed in the state’s constitution.

Knowing Arizona the way I do, I think this is as good as passed. The state might be culturally very conservative in some places, but it has a very strong libertarian streak in it — which translates to a “my bedroom, my business” attitude. As in Florida, the alternative to not passing a constitutional amendment in Arizona will be abiding by a very restrictive law. Given those two choices, it’s pretty obvious what voters will pick.

As I wrote last week, perhaps 15-week limits could become a “tolerable” restrictive floor for abortion. Perhaps. But there’s “tolerance” and there’s “preference,” and it’s pretty clear the public prefers to decide for itself whether to make this decision. It doesn’t want the government to decide for it.

If you’re wondering what these abortion propositions truly mean for the makeup of the general electorate, the biggest thing they do is motivate younger folks to show up. And if all these abortion propositions around the country do just that and juice youth turnout, they could be the difference between Biden carrying Arizona and Trump carrying it.


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