Would the GOP Dare Overturn Roe?

| Tue Oct. 18, 2005 3:13 PM EDT

The big news on Harriet Miers today... she's an abortion opponent! Seemed fairly predictable, but okay:

President Bush's Supreme Court nominee, Harriet E. Miers, pledged support in 1989 for a constitutional amendment that would ban abortions except when necessary to save the life of the woman.
We still don't know for sure, granted, whether or not Miers would actually vote to overturn Roe v. Wade if she got a chance—and it's worth noting that even if she did, the Court would still have a five-vote Roe majority (Ginsberg, Stevens, Souter, Breyer, Kenendy)—but it's as good an indication as we'll get. Really, we can only guess. What I do want to question, though, is the prevailing view among many liberals that George W. Bush would never want to see Roe overturned, on the theory that it would mean the electoral death of the Republican Party. Is this really so certain? It's true that a substantial majority of Americans supports abortion rights, but there's reason to think that the Republican leadership would still try to overturn Roe, and risk the backlash, if they got the chance.

Will Saletan formulated one version of the "Republicans fear overturning Roe" thesis in this Slate piece, noting that in 1989, when Pa Bush was president, and it looked like the Supreme Court might overturn Roe, the political backlash was colossal: Voters reportedly made it an issue; pro-life politicians lost their jobs; many pro-lifers backed away. That's the claim, anyway. Saletan suggests that the younger Bush has learned his lesson and would never touch Roe. Alternatively, some pundits have suggested that if Roe was overturned, the Christian right would finally be satisfied, pack up their protest signs and go home, and thus dampen voter turnout for the GOP. Pro-choice activists, meanwhile, would be newly fired up (and popular), and the Democrats would benefit.

Historical analysis bears this out to some extent, although these things are always fuzzy. Roe v. Wade helped the Republican Party, no doubt, by spurring religious groups, notably the Christian Coalition and Pat Robertson's 700 Club, to abandon their longstanding quietist stance and finally start getting involved in politics. It also, maybe, spelled the beginning of the end of the Democratic Party's reputation as the party of "moral values" among the electorate. As William Galston and Elaine Karmack recently pointed out, the Democrats have historically polled much higher than the Republicans on "traditional family values" questions, but that lead started declining in or around 1973. Did Roe cause that? Hard to say—surely not singlehandedly (Dems were still doing well on this question in the mid-80s), but perhaps in part.

Nevertheless, there's no going back to 1973, even if Roe was overturned. The Christian Right and other social conservatives wouldn't dismantle the vast political operation they have in place; instead they'd stay focused on passing bans at the state and national level. (The usual estimate is that 30 states would ban abortions if Roe was overturned, although this poll suggests that only about 10-15 states have pro-life majorities; so there's lots to crusade against here.) Once Roe's gone, the Ralph Reeds and Pat Robertsons of the future won't suddenly wash their hands of the GOP and decide that they no longer need to rile up the faithful for political ends—the money's too good and the power too marvelous. No, the conservative base will stay perfectly active. Meanwhile, pro-choice activists in California, Illinois, Massachusetts, New York, and other blue states might actually be de-mobilized, since abortion would in theory be safe for them and their friends, and fighting for abortion rights at the state level is much more daunting than fighting to uphold Roe. This might not happen, but it's not that outlandish either. Perhaps this is a risk someone like Grover Norquist would just as soon not take, especially since conservatives are doing just fine as it is, but there seem to be enough hardliners on the Republican side of the aisle willing to take the plunge.

Personally, I think all of this would be horrific, which is why I believe Roe shouldn't be overturned. But the point is that it's not impossible to think the conservative movement would survive the backlash—they've already made abortion a near-impossibility for a large swath of the country, and haven't suffered for it yet—and those who believe the GOP would never dare overturn Roe are making a pretty daunting leap of faith, it seems.