By Dick Polman
So it looks like Roe v. Wade is perched at the precipice. Gee, I wonder how that happened. Let me count the ways.
Conservative Republicans started prioritizing a high court takeover, with the explicit aim of ending legal abortion, more than 40 years ago. In 1980, Ronald Reagan’s GOP introduced new language in its party platform, promising to “work for the appointment of judges at all levels of the judiciary who respect traditional family values and the sanctity of innocent human life.”
In response, Democrats and progressives stuck their heads in the sand.
In 1992, the Supreme Court kept Roe alive, but ruled that some restrictions would be OK as long as they didn’t impose an “undue burden” on women. Anti-abortion groups, backed by their friends in the GOP, seized on that loophole and launched grassroots movement to restrict abortion on a state by state basis – focusing on the state legislatures.
In response, abortion rights groups did virtually nothing, focusing instead on federal policy in D.C.
By the time George W. Bush ran against Al Gore in 2000 – and wooed the Christian right with explicit promises to craft a right-wing court – key conservative activists like William Kristol were echoing the same priority. In 1999, Kristol told me: “The biggest impact the next president will have on domestic policy will be in the realm of high court appointments. There are so many big things facing the court in the next few years…church-state issues, abortion.”
In response, Democrats and progressives yawned.
Inspired by the mounting onslaught of state restrictions on abortion, and angered by Barack Obama’s sweeping victory in 2008, the Republicans – always thinking ahead – launched a massive effort to capture state legislatures in the 2010 “off-year” elections, not just to undercut Roe, but to control the drawing of congressional and state legislative districts with the 2010 census stats.
In response, Democrats and progressives devoted a relative pittance of money and resources to the state races.
In 2014, thanks to the usual anemic Democratic “off-year” turnout – hey Obama was president, what else did they need to do? – Republicans seized control of the U.S. Senate and Mitch McConnell, the new majority leader, was thus empowered to block Obama high court nominee Merrick Garland, to the point of even denying him a hearing.
Did Democrats and progressives launch a sustained major outcry about that “stolen seat”? Nope.
In the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump made it crystal clear that if elected he wanted to erase Roe: “That (end of Roe) will happen automatically, in my opinion, because I am putting ‘pro-life’ justices on the court.” Trump even released a list of such names, prepared for him by the right-wing Federalist Society, which for decades had been nurturing a deep bench of right-wing nominees.
In response, Hillary Clinton did not prioritize the future of the court, and Democrats and progressives still didn’t warn their voters, with any sustained messaging, that Garland’s stolen seat could wind up being filled by a right-winger. (It was indeed, by Neil Gorsuch.)
Sure enough, when the 2016 exit polls were released, the damage was done: One-fifth of all voters cited the Supreme Court as the “most important” factor in their voting decision – among those folks, Trump swamped Clinton by 15 percentage points
So there you have it. Trump remade the court – and McConnell, as majority leader, muscled Amy Coney Barrett onto the bench at Trump’s eleventh hour to become a potential sixth Roe-killing or Roe-crippling vote – not just because the GOP shrewdly played the long game, but because the party of abortion rights and its allies slept for decades.
Now they seem to think that they can succeed in the 2022 congressional midterms by highlighting what the GOP has done – a typically reactive last-ditch Hail-Mary response. The bottom line is, they have failed from the bottom up, failed from the top down, and they have confirmed writer Aldous Huxley’s age-old observation that “human beings are condemned to consequences.”
And women, denied autonomy over their own bodies, are poised to pay the biggest price.
Dick Polman, a veteran national political columnist based in Philadelphia and a Writer in Residence at the University of Pennsylvania, writes at DickPolman.net. Email him at [email protected]