Jumping on a question about Roe seems like the obvious move for Pence. But both polling and politics show that Pence was smart to remain vague about what he believes should happen if the conservative Supreme Court majority sharply curtails or reverses the ruling.
According to a 2019 Pew Research Center study, 70 percent of Americans don’t want Roe to be completely overturned: That includes 87 percent of Democrats, half of all Republicans and even 35 percent of those who say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. Pence is a smart political operator — he could have articulated a strong, reasonably popular position if the question was framed around, say, late-term abortions. But Americans are risk-averse — even some who oppose abortion are skittish about sudden massive changes to existing policy such as overturning Roe. That could explain why, when moderator Susan Page asked Pence about the precedent, he pivoted to bragging about the killing of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani and rehashing controversies around Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett’s previous nomination to the U.S. Court of Appeals.
The second reason: Debate time is precious, and the Trump administration no longer has anything to prove to the Christian right.
Throughout his first term, President Trump has proved to be a reliable, if transactional, partner to social conservatives. He has filled the judiciary with judges supported by the Federalist Society, and he’s nominated Barrett, a favorite of the religious right, to the Supreme Court. A few minutes after Page asked about Roe, Pence circled back and did briefly avow that he is unapologetically pro-life, but he didn’t need to spend much time reassuring the base or explicating his position. Social conservatives know that Trump will play ball on these issues, so Pence was free to quickly attack Biden and Harris as extreme on reproductive rights and move on to a longer, more memorable exchange on court-packing.
The final reason: Pence knows that he’s not going to make any pro-life converts at this debate. Americans have been split on abortion for decades. A few words from Pence won’t change that.
Americans, despite shifting left on issues such as marijuana legalization and marriage equality, have remained deadlocked on abortion. In 1975, Gallup found that 21 percent of Americans said abortion should be legal under any circumstance, 22 percent said illegal in all circumstances and 54 percent said legal “only under certain” circumstances. Today, those numbers are almost identical: 29 percent said abortion should be legal in any circumstance; 20 percent said illegal and 50 percent were somewhere in the middle. The polls have bounced around a bit during the interim but, for decades, voters have made their position clear: They want a moderate policy between the pro-life and pro-choice extremes.
Part of Pence’s life mission is to shift this equilibrium as well as policy in the pro-life direction. He might be able to do that after the election, either as vice president or the possible 2024 GOP front-runner, but he knows there’s not enough time to accomplish his goals between now and November. His smartest move was to stick to his convictions but try to help Trump win by emphasizing other issues. That’s exactly what he did.
It’s foolish to attribute grand strategic plans to Trump. When Trump gets distracted and fails to mention a key talking point, there’s a decent chance he’s just making a mistake. But Pence is a smart, long-term thinker with a clear, conservative policy agenda. When he makes a seemingly odd political move, remember that he wants more than just a second term as Donald Trump’s vice president.