They know the stance is unpopular with voters, and yet they can’t seem to help themselves.
Let’s get one thing out of the way right off the bat: South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham’s just-proposed federal abortion ban is not going to pass. Not with this Congress anyway. Graham himself admitted as much, explaining during a Tuesday press conference that “if we take back the House and Senate, I can assure you we'll have a vote.” He knows the bill — a stricter version of the anti-choice legislation he’s put forward year after year — is a non-starter so long as the Democrats hold one, to say nothing of both, chambers of Congress. Instead, think of his wildly disingenuous stand against bodily autonomy as Graham planting an ill-advised flag around which he’s hoping to rally his fellow conservatives, no matter how politically unpopular that flag may be.
Despite coming just weeks before a midterm election that has been in no small part defined by the massive pushback against the Supreme Court’s repeal of federal abortion protections, here’s Graham, undoing months of conservative lip-service to “states rights” (his own included) when it comes to their ultimate aims post-Roe. No matter how much some Republicans may want to keep their electoral hopes alive by downplaying abortion as a topic, Graham — one of the most high profile Conservatives in office today — has instead thrust reproductive health right back into the spotlight. And the strange thing is, even knowing how electorally radioactive their anti-choice positioning is, Graham’s fellow Republicans simply cannot help but take the bait.
Less than 24 hours after the “Protecting Pain-Capable Unborn Children from Late-Term Abortions Act” was unveiled, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio jumped onboard to cosponsor the bill, explaining simply that “I’ve always been pro-life.” By so publicly backing Graham’s bill, however, Rubio places his razor-thin lead over Democrat Val Demings in serious jeopardy, with the majority of Floridians opposed to abortion bans. Same with North Carolina Republican Senate candidate Ted Budd, who announced on Wednesday that he too would put his name alongside Rubio’s to co-sponsor Graham’s bill, even as he finds himself neck-in-neck with Democrat Cheri Beasley.
In Georgia, where yet another toss-up Senate race where abortion rights could be the deciding factor, Republican Herschel Walker unsuccessfully attempted to thread the needle between distancing and embracing Graham’s bill, telling Politico that “I believe the issue should be decided at the state level, but I WOULD support this policy.”
Among those lining up in Graham’s corner, former Vice President and potential 2024 candidate Mike Pence at least had the self-awareness to acknowledge that backing this poison pill anti-choice bill “is profoundly more important than any short-term politics.”
In part, it’s easy to understand this lemming-like impulse to jump face-first into the most politically radioactive issue of the year as one of sheer inertia: Republicans have spent the past half century or so working toward the full criminalization of abortion. Now that their goal is tantalizingly close, they can’t help but keep that momentum going, no matter how tactically suicidal it may be. And yes, Republicans know it’s bad policy ahead of a fraught midterm election. Even Mitch McConnell — arguably the most skilled political operator since LBJ — is attempting to pump the breaks on what he clearly sees as a major liability for his chance of winning back the Senate.
If it helps, think of this whole dynamic in terms of Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel’s now-iconic (if clinically dubious) marshmallow experiments on delayed gratification. Rather than staying prudently quiet on the issue, and reaping the potential benefits later, there is a strain of Republican politicians who evidently lack the self-control to keep them from blurting out their obvious, long-standing goal of criminalizing women's bodies at the least opportune time.
On one hand, it’s a morbidly undiluted — albeit laughably hypocritical — spurt of honesty from some of the most reactionary, restrictive conservatives in public life. On the other, however, it’s a chilling look at what Republicans are working toward now, without Roe to stop them.