For the last several years, congressional Republicans have pursued what can be described as a short-term gain, long-term pain strategy. That is, the GOP-led House has championed, passed or, just as often, not passed legislation that pleases its base and the group of three dozen or so of its members who stake out the furthest territory on the right of ideological spectrum. That's been a fine thing for those members, most of whom sit in districts in which the only threat of losing comes in a primary, but it has been far more problematic for the overall brand of the party as it tries to recapture the White House in 2016. Think immigration reform.
On Wednesday, House Republicans -- whether purposely or by accident -- reversed that strategy, choosing some short-term pain in exchange for at least the possibility of long-term gain. A revolt by female members and the increasing ranks of moderates within the party led to the scrapping of a planned vote on a 20-week abortion ban on Thursday -- designed to coincide with the annual March for Life in Washington.
The problem, according to the excellent reporting of The Post's Ed O'Keefe, was two-fold:
1. A provision in the bill that would provide abortion exemptions to women who had been raped only if they reported the crime to police.
2. The general concern, particularly among female Republican members, that holding a symbolic vote on such a high-profile social issue this soon into the 114th Congress would provide fodder for the "war on women" argument Democrats have been advancing against the GOP for the last several elections.
The reaction among the conservative and antiabortion communities was rapid -- and expected. Here's a sample -- directed at Rep. Renee L. Ellmers (R-N.C.), who was a leading voice in opposition to the 20-week bill:
Renee Ellmers is the GOP's Abortion Barbie.
— Erick Erickson (@EWErickson) January 22, 2015
The argument from the right is that being antiabortion is a fundamental pillar of being a Republican. If Republicans aren't willing to declare their support for the sanctity of human life, maybe they aren't -- or shouldn't be -- Republicans.
Fair enough. But, the key to politics -- or at least to winning in politics -- is emphasizing those issues where you have the support of a majority of the country and spending less time and energy on those where you don't. Abortion -- particularly when it comes to questions of women who have been raped or the victims of incest -- is an issue in which the majority of the country is not in line with the Republican base. Fifty-two percent of voters in the 2014 election said that abortion should be legal in the United States (23 percent said in all cases, 29 percent in "most" cases), while 44 percent said it should be illegal in all (17 percent) or most (27 percent) cases. And those raw numbers might not even tell the full story. Remember that the electorate in 2014 was strongly tilted toward Republicans, making it more likely that in a more neutral election with presidential-year turnout -- like, say 2016 -- the support for keeping abortion legal would be higher.
The key here is not that Republicans should abandon their principles on abortion -- or anything else. But the way that you present those positions to the public matters in how they perceive you -- and whether they will vote for you. An anecdote relayed to me by a very conservative Republican consultant a few years back still sticks with me on that point. In 2012, Richard Mourdock and Todd Akin lost their races for Senate at least in part because of their unwillingness or inability to affirm their antiabortion credentials and then move on to issues people were more concerned about in that election. (Both men rambled into a discussion of rape and whether women can get pregnant from it.) Two years earlier, Pat Toomey, running for the Senate in Pennsylvania, would make clear to anyone who asked that he was antiabortion but would then quickly pivot to talking about jobs, the economy or President Obama. Toomey won.
The point of the story, according to the consultant, was that Toomey understood that steering conversations -- and voters' perceptions -- away from troublesome areas and onto stronger ground isn't an abandonment of principles. It's smart politics. It didn't make Toomey any less antiabortion to affirm his beliefs and then carefully avoid being caught in the thicket of other social-issues questions. And, it, inarguably, helped him win in a Democratic-leaning state.
The Toomey blueprint is particularly instructive for Republicans as they enter a presidential election in which women are extremely likely to make up a majority of all voters (they constituted 53 percent of the overall vote in 2008 and 2012) and one in which the GOP is very likely to face the first female presidential nominee in history. Republicans lost the female vote by 11 points in 2012 and 13 points in 2008. Losing by a similar margin in 2016 would make a Republican victory extremely difficult.
Ana Navarro, a Florida-based Republican consultant, tweeted this after the vote was scrapped:
Some r unhappy w/result. But impt to recognize this is game changing & a 1st for GOP women in Cong. Flexed muscle, made leadership listen.
— Ana Navarro (@ananavarro) January 22, 2015
Whether Ellmers and the rest of the Republican members who torpedoed the 20-week vote realized all of those implications is an open question. But, for the first time in awhile, House Republicans made a decision to lose a battle in hopes of winning the larger political war.