A political party with close ties to religious conservatives wins a national election thanks to unhappiness with the ruling center-left party’s economic and financial performance. Challenged to redeem its platform promising a major reversal of landmark laws making abortion generally legal, the conservative party promulgates a law banning the procedure, with exceptions for rape, incest, and threats to the physical and mental health of the mother. Protests appear and spread as women object to the turning back of the clock. Public opinion surveys show 70 to 80 percent opposition to the new law. And finally, the conservative party’s prime minister relents, puts off implementation of the abortion ban on grounds that it would be reversed at the next change of party control, and instead proposes a face-saving measure providing for parental approval of abortions by minors. Anti-choicers and religious officials are very, very displeased and the governing party could be heading toward disarray.
In case you missed it, that’s what just happened in Spain. And it’s an omen for what might happen if U.S. Republicans regain power in 2016 thanks to general unhappiness with the Obama administration and the results of its economic policies. A long-overdue debt — sort of a balloon payment on an old mortgage — would reach maturity, and the GOP would be hard-pressed not to take some dramatic action on hot-button cultural issues, especially abortion. And the required gesture could be politically toxic. The Spanish law is significantly more liberal than what the national GOP has long been committed to; aside from the significant number of Republicans who oppose rape and incest exceptions to a hypothetical abortion ban, a health exception has long been anathema, and a mental health exception even more so (recall the sarcastic air quotes John McCain used for “health exceptions” in the 2008 presidential debate at Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church).
Now it’s very likely that in a situation parallel to that facing Spain’s conservative People’s Party, the GOP would attempt an indirect approach to redeeming its longstanding promise to rescind legalized abortion, via the first available opening on the U.S. Supreme Court. If that first opening involves a Justice who supports abortion rights, then the process of selecting and confirming a replacement could be as controversial as the promulgation of an abortion ban in Spain, given the longstanding mobilization of forces around the delicate balance of the Court on the Roe v. Wade and Casey v. Planned Parenthood precedents, as eroded in 2005 by Gonzales v. Carhart.
If it’s an anti-choice justice who creates an opening, or if no opening occurs at all in the first couple of years of Republican governance, then a more overt demonstration of Pro-Life fidelity may be required. You may recall that the last time Republicans controlled Congress and the White House, such a demonstration arose over the Terri Schiavo controversy, leading Republicans to repudiate their state’s rights rhetoric and quite frankly appear crazy to a good portion of the electorate. Then, and in the hypothetical future, the reality of the filibuster as a bar to any legislative action on “life” issues could be brushed aside in the rush to reward all those right-to-life ground troops who have knocked on doors and licked envelopes for the Republicans during its long, unequal marriage to the Cultural Right.
The bottom line is that a Republican Party — which like the anti-choice movement itself has long been Janus-faced, publicly focusing on rare and unpopular late-term abortions while never moving an inch from support from a total abortion ban with rare exceptions — would be forced by actual power to choose between a final betrayal of its “base” and an implicit mandate to ignore all that cultural stuff. Even if it’s abundantly clear to all the pundits that a triumphal GOP has gained control of the federal government for reasons that have zero to do with rolling back abortion rights — or GLBT rights, or a “path to citizenship” for undocumented immigrants — there’s also zero reason to assume that President Christie or Bush or Paul or Cruz might not find himself in exactly the position of Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy this week: admitting a big chunk of the party platform is quite simply too hot to handle. If it comes to that, a lot of conservative activists may lose their final illusions.
Ed Kilgore is the principal blogger for Washington Monthly’s Political Animal blog, Managing Editor of The Democratic Strategist, and a Senior Fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Earlier he worked for three governors and a U.S. Senator. He can be followed on Twitter at @ed_kilgore.