Jonathan Cohn

Abortion and the Tea Party

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In most of the discussions of why Mike Castle lost the Republican Senate nomination in Delaware to the wacky conservative insurgent Christine O’Donnell, commentators emphasize that Castle crossed conservatives by voting for gun control, climate-change legislation, and TARP … as well as being pro-choice. In none of the analyses I've read has this last factor been emphasized, or treated as anything more significant than another indicator of his “moderation.”

Ignoring abortion as an issue is an inveterate habit of the chattering classes, particularly on the progressive side of the aisle. Few people, other than celebrating right-to-lifers, have noted how much the already slim ranks of pro-choice Republicans were thinned this primary season. Aside from Castle, Senators Kay Bailey Hutchison and Lisa Murkowski, and Representative Tom Campbell, have lost in major statewide contests.

This is a persistent blind spot in political commentary. When the 2008 presidential cycle began, Rudy Guiliani was treated often as the front-runner, even though his pro-choice views meant he’d have to skip the Iowa Republican Caucuses, which are beholden to that state’s right-to-life movement. Yet Rudy’s candidacy predictably crashed and burned. When John McCain was mulling his decision about a running-mate, the betting favorites in the commentariat were pro-choice figures Joe Lieberman and Tom Ridge. This simply wasn't going to happen, because the right-to-life movement has an implicit veto over Republican convention nominees. The proved their power by threatening a convention revolt against a pro-choice running-mate, and a chastened McCain iinstead selected the right-to-lifers' very favorite politician, an obscure governor whom progressives knew nothing about named Sarah Palin. 

I see the same dynamic in political coverage this year. We have been told repeatedly that the Tea Party movement is all about economics and fiscal issues, and other than a couple of articles about how Carly Fiorina's pro-life position is a problem for her in the general election, I've seen zero discussion of abortion this year in non-conservative publications, particularly as it affects the Republican primaries.

Perhaps because the national media tend to be secular, we are persistently underestimating the role that abortion plays in right-wing politics. Yet it is key to understanding some of the zealous opposition that caused GOP primary voters to overthrow Mike Castle. Unless you are an aficionado of conservative blogs, you probably didn't notice the deep opposition that many on the right were taking to Castle's pro-choice views. Here’s renowned right-wing activist Ken Blackwell:

In the interests of party unity, the pro-life majority in the GOP has gone along with many a "RINO," hoping that Republicans like Arlen Specter, Susan Collins, and Olympia Snowe could at least be relied upon to stand with us against abortion funding and in favor of originalist judges. But Mike Castle went far beyond even these liberal Republicans.

Even if, as Jon Chait suggests in his brilliant take on the O’Donnell win, many conservative voters now think of climate change legislation as a serious threat to American freedom, it is worth remembering that the RTL movement considers abortion analogous to the Holocaust, and pro-choice pols to be enablers of monstrous evilat worst conscious advocates of genocide.

This fact should inform the way we think about this year's right-wing groundswell, and the role of Sarah Palin in particular. How many pundits recognized that her famous Facebook post, which declared that health care reform would authorize “death panels,” contained a dog whistle to her fellow right-to-lifers? Her statement that Trig Palin would be a likely victim of said death panels was the clear tip-off; the subtext was that godless liberals, frustrated by her refusal to kill Trig in the womb, had figured out an alternative means of finishing him off. This is unfortunately standard reasoning for committed anti-abortion activists, who are enraged by politicians and pundits who refuse to take their cause seriously.

For all the endless and interminable talk about "constitutionalism" on the right, it's rarely acknowledged that lurking in the background is wrath about Roe v. Wade. The same is true with the rage about health care reform; if you read a lot of right-wing blogs, as I do, you'd note that fear about Obamacare producing a massive expansion of publicly-funded abortion was a major motivator of right-wing opposition. House Minority Leader John Boehner knew his constituency when he made this statement just prior to the House vote on health reform:

A 'yes' vote for this government takeover of health care is a 'yes' vote for sending hard-earned tax dollars to pay for abortions.

More generally, the anger associated with the entire Tea Party movement is, I suspect, traceable among many activists to endless frustration of its desire to end the "genocide" of legalized abortion, to which the GOP "establishment" has given little more than lip service.

Perhaps I’m overestimating the power of the abortion issue, and Mike Castle lost strictly because of his votes for climate-change legislation and TARP, or because he embodied his state’s establishment. But I'm inclined to think that his pro-choice position contributed mightily to his downfall. The abortion issue didn't go away for the right the day the Tea Party started.

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