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Mum's the Word

With Roe, the GOP is the Dog That Caught the Car

Why Republicans don’t yet want to talk about the overturning of Roe v. Wade.

A close up of Mitch McConnell
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

There’s one clear reason why the right has spent much of the last week fulminating over a leak of a draft of a Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade: It’s the easiest way to not have to talk about the fact that Roe is about to be overturned. As I argued earlier this week, part of that focus is a desperate, bad-faith effort to protect the legitimacy of the court—the right’s decades-long takeover of the American legal system is dependent on it being seen as legitimate and apolitical in the eyes of voters. But another motivation is also slowly emerging: Overturning Roe could have devastating political fallout for Republicans.

In this sense, the GOP are the proverbial dog that caught the car. For decades, they have been working their voters into frothing hysteria over the need to protect the unborn from abortionists and their Democratic protectors. But what this means in practice—prosecuting women who have miscarriages, deaths from ectopic pregnancies, a precipitous rise in America’s already abysmal childbirth mortality rates—is far less appealing. From a public health standpoint, the draft decision leaked on Monday is an abomination. From a political standpoint, it imperils midterm victories that were for all intents and purposes inevitable.

The response from the right has, thus, been to largely ignore the odious substance of the draft itself. Mitch McConnell had discussed the leak several times; while the impending downfall of Roe was arguably the crowning achievement of his political career, he was slower to discuss it. While he did hint at possible “federal” legislation to come if the Supreme Court overturns the law in an interview, he later averred that he would not get rid of the filibuster to pass such a measure. The bigger surprise is that Donald Trump, as Politico noted on Friday, has been “oddly silent” about Roe, despite the fact that he, too, should be triumphant: Three of the five justices currently voting to strike down the decades-long precedent were appointed by him. At a rally in Pennsylvania on Friday, Trump barely mentioned Roe, only alluding to the fact that the justices he nominated were “making a very big decision now.”

Some Republicans have applauded the decision—Kristi Noem and Josh Hawley among them—but many others have kept mum, either focusing on criticizing the leak itself or saying nothing at all. On Tuesday, Axios published a document from the Senate Republicans campaign arm laying out its Roe talking points, nearly all of which are lies and efforts to distract from the truth: that Republicans aspire to enact a nationwide ban on all abortions at any point in pregnancy. The memo advises Republicans to affirm that they are against banning contraception, taking away health care for women, and throwing doctors and women who have miscarriages in prison—despite the fact that Republican legislatures in several states are already preparing laws that would do these things and more. The memo suggests that aspersions should be cast on Democrats instead, fingering them as the real abortion radicals who oppose “even limiting abortion to the first trimester”—despite the fact that Republicans are out to ban all abortions.

One ad, meanwhile, includes sample language: “‘Sarah Republican,’ making an ad against ‘John Democrat,’ should say, ‘Here’s my view—I am pro-life, but, in reality, forget about the political labels, all of us are in favor of life.’” That’s as close as political messaging comes to “lorem ipsum” filler text.

Republicans have had, depending on your point of view, either decades—from Roe’s inception—or months—from the moment it became clear that the Supreme Court was going to overturn the decision, to prepare talking points. This is the best that they can come up with, a desperate attempt to muddy the waters and redirect attention from themselves. Overturning Roe is not popular with voters and hasn’t been for some time; pregnant patients being denied life-saving medical care isn’t going to be popular either. Republican voters will demand draconian anti-abortion laws that may, in turn, bring out Democratic voters, erasing expected gains in November.

Remember: Abortion isn’t the only thing Republicans are targeting. The decision from Justice Alito would put countless other rights at risk, from access to contraception to gay marriage to basic privacy. This, too, could spur a backlash and further attempts from Republicans to deflect and obscure what is now frightfully obvious: Republicans’ ambition agenda doesn’t simply end at the banning of abortions. It’s a multipronged plan to dismantle the rights and protections that citizens have won over the last 60 years of civic life. For years, Republicans have used dog whistles with their voters on these points while professing that it’s the Democrats that are the real radicals. With the fall of Roe, the Republican project is fully exposed for what it is.