As Donald Trump hurtles toward the Republican convention, he is on a collision course with the anti-abortion movement — a crucial conservative constituency that contends Republicans must own that issue to win a general election.
Leaders of the movement are suspicious, if not outright opposed, to the three-time married billionaire who only recently came to oppose abortion and whose gaffes suggest he does not understand the issue.
The latest flap exploded Thursday after Trump vowed he would “absolutely” change the Republican platform opposing abortion “for the three exceptions” — rape, incest and to protect the life of the mother. The platform is silent on exceptions, but anti-abortion groups such as March for Life shot back that Trump’s revisions would undermine the party’s “solidly pro-life” position.
“The suggestion that the platform should weaken its position on the pro-life issue would set back years of hard work in the pro-life movement,” said Tom McClusky, vice president of March for Life Action.
Add to that the GOP front-runner’s statements last month that women should be punished for getting illegal abortions and that he doesn’t want to change existing law — positions his campaign later recanted — which are anathema to a movement that portrays itself as supportive of pregnant women and seeks to overturn the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion
The speed with which he corrected the two gaffes — which he rarely does — proves that he knows to take the movement seriously.
At the same time, Trump has not toned down his praise of Planned Parenthood, which he says “has done very good work for many, many — for millions of women” despite the fact that the group is reviled by anti-abortion advocates as “a seller of baby body parts.”
“He says ‘I’m pro-life, abortion is wrong’ and I’m not sure that he has taken it beyond that,” said Carol Tobias, president of National Right to Life, which has endorsed Sen. Ted Cruz. “People who have been involved in the pro-life movement — in the politics, in the culture, for anywhere from one month to 40 plus years — are very well immersed in the language, the issues and I think they just see his lack of ability to talk about the issue as a problem.”
The leaders of other major anti-abortion groups such as the Susan B. Anthony List, Concerned Women for America and other groups said in January that they’d support any Republican except Trump, and show no sign of wavering.
Right now, the two camps are in a cold war with minimal communication. The anti-abortion groups are grappling with how aggressively to support Trump’s only significant competitor, Cruz, and whether it could work with Trump should he become the Republican nominee in Cleveland this summer.
While the anti-abortion movement has had big success in enacting hundreds of state-level abortion restrictions, what it really wants is to seat Supreme Court justices who would reverse Roe v. Wade. To do that, it needs a president who will fight aggressively for anti-abortion causes. Trump, it says, isn’t that guy.
Capitalizing on momentum
The anti-abortion movement had a lot of reasons to look forward to 2016: It had a Republican presidential field that spoke against abortion in a strong, unified voice. It had rebounded from its disastrous 2012 “Todd Akin” election with a new campaign playbook, and it was buoyed by last summer’s sting videos targeting Planned Parenthood, its nemesis.
It was just four years ago that Akin said that women’s bodies can “shut that whole thing down” to block pregnancy if they are “legitimately” raped — a comment that tarred every anti-abortion Republican as unsympathetic to rape victims and was flat wrong on reproductive biology. He was followed by Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock, who said that children conceived from rape were part of God’s plan. Democrats won those 2012 races and kept control of the Senate, in part by arguing that all Republicans were engaged in a “war on women.”
But within one election cycle, anti-abortion forces managed to neutralize that narrative and prove they could win. It was a success they were hoping to repeat in 2016.
Their comeback started just days after Mitt Romney lost the 2012 presidential race, which SBA List blamed on Romney’s heavy focus on the economy to the exclusion of social issues.
“The GOP establishment and allied Super PACs simply refused to latch onto our message in any way, shape, or form, and again,” the group wrote in a post-2012 election memo obtained by POLITICO.
Prodded by the anti-abortion leaders, such as SBA List’s Marjorie Dannenfelser and Charmaine Yoest, who at the time led Americans United for Life, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus called for greater public emphasis on social issues. The RNC attended the March for Life, the annual Washington rally marking the anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision. And a 20-week abortion ban, already enacted in several states, became a plank in the official GOP platform.
“What we learned from the Akin and Mourdock-type comments is that you have to be very thoughtful in your approach and that requires you to have an understanding that has some depth,” said Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), who is now leading the House select committee set up after last summer’s sting videos about Planned Parenthood.
Off the Hill, SBA List began requiring candidates who might get its endorsement to undergo a tough sit-down conversation so SBA List executives could make sure the candidates could speak about abortion without an “Akin moment.” Dannenfelser jokingly called them “murder boards.”
“Our conversations with our candidates helped prepared them to go on offense, instead of waiting for them to get punched in the face in the first abortion debate,” she said.
The group had a similar session with at least one 2016 presidential contender. It wouldn’t identify the candidate but it’s reasonable to assume it wasn’t Trump.
The effort payed off big in 2014. In Louisiana and North Carolina Senate races, male anti-abortion candidates edged out incumbent Democratic women who supported abortion rights. In Colorado, Cory Gardner defeated incumbent Sen. Mark Udall, who had bet much of his race on painting Gardner as bad for women.
Anti-abortion groups hoped to ride those successes into the 2016 presidential and down ballot races. Its top two priorities were a national 20-week abortion ban and cutting off funds to Planned Parenthood. And every Republican presidential candidate — including Trump — supported them. Several, including Cruz, Carly Fiorina, Marco Rubio and Rand Paul, were eager to talk about abortion and fire up the grass roots. Cruz and Rubio went further than most Republicans, opposing abortion even in cases of rape and incest, although both have supported legislation that allows for such exceptions.
But Paul, Fiorina and other passionately anti-abortion candidates fell off the GOP debate stage as Trump became more dominant.
Trump flubs the movement’s talking points
Despite his professed opposition to abortion, Trump did not reach out to soothe activists’ skepticism, nor did he flesh out to their satisfaction how he would enact abortion legislation or select judges. Their skepticism quickly devolved into downright opposition.
Leaders in the movement worry that if Trump is the GOP nominee, he will drive away grass-roots anti-abortion voters and women. That could hand the election to Hillary Clinton, who would support legislation and Supreme Court justices that anti-abortion activists find intolerable.
It could be that Trump is just really bad at talking about abortion — he wouldn’t be the first male politician with that problem. His campaign did not respond to questions for this article.
But to many activists and prominent Republicans, his flubbed answers showed that he lacks even a basic understanding of the anti-abortion movement’s talking points. Abortion opponents don’t want to punish women who end a pregnancy — and they are wildly enthusiastic about changing abortion laws.
“Every pro-life person could answer that question very easily: No, we don’t want to put women in jail,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who is backing Cruz in order to stop Trump. “For him to stumble on that shows he is really not much of a pro-life person.”
Abortion rights supporters say Trump is simply more honest about the movement’s true motives: to stop access to abortion and punish those who obtain it or make it possible.
“He’s a neophyte in this world. He’s observing what he sees around him and crystalizing it,” said Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America. “What he basically did was hold a mirror up to the movement.”
Fresh from the big New York win, Trump could do a few things to try to win back voters for whom abortion is a priority issue.
He could talk specifics about what laws he would support — at the top of the movement’s list is the 20-week abortion ban. He could share details about what kinds of judges he would appoint. He could walk back his repeated declarations that Planned Parenthood does some “very good work.”
The anti-abortion groups aren’t ready to say that they won’t support Trump if he’s the Republican nominee. They do know they’d oppose Clinton.
“Politics is always about contrast and always about a choice and we’re 100 percent sure about where Hillary stands,” Dannenfelser said. “If it comes down to Trump, we’re going to have to look really closely at the difference between those two people.”
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