The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Democrats finally have a message. Will they seize it?

Demonstrators outside the Supreme Court in D.C. on May 3. (Ting Shen/Bloomberg News)
5 min

With the extraordinary leak of a draft showing the Supreme Court is preparing to strike down Roe v. Wade, Democrats finally have something they have lacked in this perilous midterm election year: a compelling message.

They now have a concrete case to make. It is that Republicans, if they get the chance, will take the country backward — and not just on abortion rights, which have been a given throughout the lifetime of the approximately two-thirds of the population that was born after the court’s landmark 1973 decision.

For the first time, voters should be compelled to focus not only on their own anger and frustration over rising prices, growing rates of violent crime and a surge in illegal immigration. Their ballots this fall will not be a mere protest vote against the direction of the country and the slim Democratic majority’s ineptitude at changing it; 2022 will also be a referendum on the GOP agenda.

The question — now thrown into sharper relief — is whether Americans want to hand the direction of the country over to a party that is likely to outlaw or severely restrict abortion in half or more of the states, but also make it harder to vote, allow the banning of books and airbrush the teaching of race relations in this country. If a Republican president is elected in 2024 and is backed up by a GOP-led Congress, Republicans could be expected to try all these things on a national level.

That the conservative court is willing to overturn Roe v. Wade is not in itself a surprise. Politico, which first reported the draft authored by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., noted that it was written in February, so there is a possibility that the court’s thinking might have shifted and will continue to. But the starkness of the language — “We hold that Roe ... must be overruled” — takes the issue out of the realm of the theoretical. As does Alito’s assertion that this decision would “return the issue of abortion to the people’s elected representatives.”

He is absolutely right about that.

The basic right to abortion, especially in the early stages of pregnancy, which is when the vast majority of abortions occur, has long enjoyed strong public support. Poll numbers have been remarkably stable in the nearly half-century since Roe established the right to abortion as the law of the land. But it has never been a galvanizing issue for those who support keeping abortion available, the way it has for opponents.

Even as states such as Texas have passed laws that would all but ban the procedure, strategists in both parties have been surprised at how little they are hearing about it in their surveys and focus groups — or as GOP pollster Christine Matthews said to me Tuesday, “why the dog hasn’t barked on this.” People in moderate and liberal states tend to shrug off those restrictive new laws as “something that couldn’t happen here.”

Meanwhile, President Biden’s approval ratings have been tanking among groups such as younger voters, who turned out in record numbers to put him into the Oval Office and who are disappointed in his failure to deliver on the progressive agenda they wanted to see. There has also been a striking decline in enthusiasm among women of all ages, who delivered for Democrats in the midterm elections of 2018 and again in 2020.

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s (R) ability to win over White women in 2021 was another flashing-red warning light for Democrats. As was his private comment to a voter who asked him last summer whether he would “take it to the abortionists” if elected. “I’m going to be really honest with you. The short answer is in this campaign, I can’t,” Youngkin replied in a comment captured on video. “When I’m governor and I have a majority in the House, we can start going on offense. But as a campaign topic, sadly, that in fact won’t win my independent votes that I have to get.”

Is it any wonder that Republicans, from the top of the ballot to local races, have chosen thus far to fight this election by stoking grievances and inventing threats such as “grooming,” rather than talking about the specifics of what they plan to do? When Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) was asked about his party’s agenda if it regains control, he replied: “That is a very good question, and I’ll let you know when we take it back.”

Whether Democrats will be able to capitalize on all of this remains to be seen. What they have shown us thus far leaves plenty of reason to doubt. But one thing is clear: It is time for voters to demand more from those who would aspire to lead them. They deserve concrete answers about what kind of future lies ahead.

Abortion access in America

Tracking abortion access in the U.S.: After the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade, the legality of abortion is left to individual states. The Post is tracking states where abortion is legal, banned or under threat.

Abortion pills: The Justice Department appealed a Texas judge’s decision that would block approval of the abortion pill mifepristone. The Supreme Court decided to retain full access to mifepristone as the appeal proceeds. Here’s an explanation of what happens next in the abortion pill case.

Post-Roe America: With Roe overturned, women who had secret abortions before Roe v. Wade felt compelled to speak out. Other women who were seeking abortions while living in states with strict abortion bans also shared their experiences with The Post through calls, text messages and other documentation. Here are photos and stories from across America since the reversal of Roe v. Wade.