Then, after meeting with Trump but with no public assurance that he had suddenly embraced its position, the group seemed to warm back up to him.
Just a week later, Trump again undercut antiabortion groups, this time suggesting that six-week bans might be “too harsh.”
Trump has now departed from these groups’ line in his starkest terms yet. And his latest comments, more than ever, present a political decision point for the embattled antiabortion wing of the party and its willingness to accommodate him.
During an interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press” that was broadcast Sunday, Trump not only declined to back a federal 15-week ban, but he called the six-week ban forged by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) “a terrible thing and a terrible mistake.” Whereas Trump had previously qualified his “too harsh” comments with his usual many-people-are-saying rhetorical device, he’s now taking ownership.
The question becomes: Will such groups grin and bear it, with Trump serving as the presumptive GOP presidential nominee? Or will they fight back? The former presents the possibility that they could be left out in the cold; the latter presents the possibility of a major and lasting setback in the battle over abortion restrictions now that Roe v. Wade has been overturned.
To be clear, Trump is effectively criticizing not just DeSantis, but a wide swath of Republicans. More than a dozen states have moved to effectively ban abortion throughout pregnancy, and at least four others have moved to ban the procedure at around six weeks. The states pressing the six-week bans also include a crucial early state on the primary calendar, Iowa, where Trump has been somewhat at odds with Gov. Kim Reynolds (R).
That’s a huge majority of Republican-controlled states that have at least done what Trump now labels “terrible,” reinforcing how extraordinary his comments are.
From a general-election standpoint, Trump’s move makes sense. Polls show that complete abortion bans and six-week bans are broadly unpopular. A recent Marquette University Law School poll showed 65 percent of Americans oppose a six-week ban. That number drops slightly — 59 percent in a recent Gallup poll — when you mention the idea that this is when a fetal heartbeat can be detected, which is how Republicans pitch such laws.
(The Marquette poll also showed more than twice as many Americans strongly oppose such laws as strongly favor them. Looking at those numbers, you begin to see why even DeSantis was initially wary of hailing Florida’s legislation.)
Among Republicans, though, it’s more complicated, with more than 6 in 10 favoring such bans.
As with most abortion-related issues, the party is stuck in a post-Dobbs v. Jackson dilemma between what most of its base wants and what is broadly palatable. The 2022 election was not kind to Republican abortion hard-liners, leading to significant caution among presidential hopefuls even beyond Trump and DeSantis.
Trump’s view of the politics of this issue has been increasingly evident, starting in the post-midterm period when he suggested that being too firm on abortion — particularly opposing exceptions such as rape and incest — had cost Republicans. What’s particularly striking about that is that Trump has always taken great care to align with his base, often at the expense of his broader appeal. But on this issue, he may see danger in marginalizing himself for the general election.
Trump’s policy positions are always subject to change. And plenty will dismiss this as posturing for the general election by a former president who has otherwise hailed his selections of the Supreme Court justices who overturned Roe v. Wade. But Trump staking out this ground matters.
And as he has increased his stranglehold on the GOP nomination, he appears to have become emboldened to try to pull his party away from that harder line on abortion rights. That presents a dilemma.
It’s broadly understood that the Trump-era conservative movement is less about the details and more about the man. When Trump departs from GOP orthodoxy, it will often simply adjust its priority to align with him — or dismiss the importance of the issue.
But abortion is an issue on which the most passionate segment of the base is often inflexible and adamant. His comments serve to test just how firm antiabortion Republicans are and how willing they are to police their own, when their own in this case is very likely to continue leading the party into the 2024 election.
For now, the response has been muted. Trump’s move has spawned some pushback on social media from some of the usual allies, but antiabortion groups haven’t leaped to go after him.
A case in point is the response from Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America. While in April it called Trump’s comments “morally indefensible” and accused him of a “completely inaccurate reading of the Dobbs decision,” on Monday it dealt more obliquely with Trump’s even more provocative comments.
“We’re at a moment where we need a human rights advocate, someone who is dedicated to saving the lives of children and serving mothers in need. Every single candidate should be clear on how they plan to do that,” the group’s president, Marjorie Dannenfelser, said. She added that “anything later than a 15-week” national standard “makes no sense.”
The statement did not mention Trump by name, nor did it directly address Trump’s comments on six-week bans. The group did later follow up with an additional statement invoking Trump opponent DeSantis, whom it praised for “following the science and the will of the people” in signing the state’s six-week ban.
Trump is signaling quite the opposite on this being the “will of the people”— and for good reason. Now antiabortion groups are tasked with figuring out precisely what to do with that.
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