Why you should care
Because abortion will be critical to Trump’s reelection campaign.
The moment has receded now, what with the blackface and the Ku Klux Klan hood and the moonwalking, but Virginia Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam found himself in a firestorm last week when discussing a proposed bill to loosen restrictions on third-trimester abortions. In a radio interview, Northam talked about a hypothetical in which a child was born with “severe deformities” or “a fetus that’s nonviable.” In that case, “the infant would be resuscitated if that’s what the mother and the family desired.” What sounded like abortion after birth ignited the right. Meanwhile, in New York, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently signed a law allowing abortions until 24 weeks of pregnancy — and later to protect the mother’s “life or health.”
In Tuesday night’s State of the Union, President Trump’s language was most vivid when talking about immigration — the wall, the grisly crimes he described “illegal aliens” committing, the dangers of “open borders.” But the eruption on the Republican side of the aisle was never louder than his denunciation of abortion. It came with the typical Trump hyperbole (he said Northam “stated he would execute a baby after birth”) and with a call for action (asking Congress to pass a ban on abortion after 20 weeks) that will never be heeded. Democrats, who control the House, sat stone-faced as Trump delivered the lines.
The Roe v. Wade fight … is the turf Democrats would prefer to play on.
But in Trump’s first major moment of the 2020 campaign cycle, he tapped into a vein that will be critical to his reelection.
Trump, of course, was once a pro-choice social liberal in Manhattan. But a turnaround on the issue was critical to his victory in 2016. Recall how during a debate Trump accused Hillary Clinton of wanting to “take the baby and rip the baby out of the womb of the mother just prior to the birth of the baby” — almost identical to his description of the New York law Tuesday night.
To many religious conservatives, Trump is an extremely flawed person — but has proven to be an extraordinarily effective White House warrior for their cause. He’s undermined Planned Parenthood and appointed two justices to the Supreme Court who are widely expected to vote to overturn Roe v. Wade if given the opportunity. And his refusal to speak in niceties is effective for a movement that strives to shock the public with details of abortion.
Make no mistake: This issue animates liberals as well and was a force behind women’s activism during the Trump era. Trump, said NARAL Pro-Choice America President Ilyse Hogue in a pre-speech rebuttal, “hasn’t even bothered to educate himself about the basics of women’s health and instead promotes lies perpetrated by an extreme anti-choice movement that has one goal only — to control women by ending legal abortion in this country.”
The Roe v. Wade fight, which will play out in the courts in the coming years and could shift even more if Trump gets another Supreme Court appointment, is the turf Democrats would prefer to play on. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll over the summer found 71 percent of Americans oppose overturning the 1973 decision that legalized abortion nationwide. Trump’s ripping-babies-out-of-the-womb language, though, has a political benefit: Gallup last year found that while 60 percent of respondents wanted abortion to be legal in the first trimester of pregnancy, that number plummeted to 28 percent in the second trimester and 13 percent in the third trimester.
Trump framed Tuesday’s speech as a call for unity, declaring, “Together, we can break decades of political stalemate.” There was a brief moment of playfulness when he congratulated the record-breaking number of women in Congress — the great majority of whom are Democrats and wore suffragette white. He extended some policy olive branches on issues like paid family leave, bringing down prescription drug costs and infrastructure — the long-unrealized promise of his first two years. He stuck to the script.
But as his largely free-form 2020 campaign gets underway, some of the lines you’re most likely to hear again involve the unborn.