Ponnuru: Wendy Davis offers a warning sign for Democrats

Published: Friday, July 5, 2013 5:30 a.m.CDT

The abortion rights side won the last battle in the abortion wars. It’s overconfident about the next one.

Gov. Rick Perry has summoned the Texas Legislature for a second special session to pass legislation regulating abortion. The bill was set to pass at the end of the first special session, but a shouting mob disrupted the state Senate so it couldn’t act. That mob was inspired by a filibuster against the bill led by State Sen. Wendy Davis, who has now become a heroine to social liberals across the country and may run for governor herself.

The bill would ban abortion after five months and make abortion clinics follow the same safety standards as ambulatory surgical centers (a requirement several other states have imposed). Supporters of the bill say the standards follow the recommendations of the Philadelphia grand jury that indicted Kermit Gosnell for killing infants at his clinic. (Gosnell was convicted and sentenced in May to life in prison.) Opponents say only five clinics in the state would be left open. When pressed they admit the other clinics could change their practices to comply with the law, but say it would be costly.

Davis’s activism illuminates a larger shift in the politics of abortion, and it poses risks that Democrats are underestimating. Her filibuster came just days after the U.S. House passed its own bill, on an almost party-line vote, to ban abortion five months after conception, except in cases of rape or when the mother’s life is threatened.

Liberals have been viewing these controversies in light of the 2012 campaign, when two anti-abortion Republicans sank their U.S. Senate campaigns and put their whole party on defense by saying they opposed abortion even in cases of rape, and saying it in clumsy ways. Democrats are using every Republican gaffe to call that history to mind, and sometimes taking Republican comments that aren’t gaffes out of context for the same purpose.

This strategy might succeed in reducing the popularity of anti-abortion politicians, as liberals hope. Some Republicans are bound to say stupid things, and many take positions out of step with the public. Journalists, who disproportionately favor abortion rights, will find these comments outrageous and newsworthy while largely ignoring the equivalents among Democrats. (In neither 2008 nor 2012 did the mainstream press accurately report President Barack Obama’s record of opposing legal protection for some infants who survive abortion.)

But in 2012, most Republicans reacted to the comments opposing abortion in cases of rape by denying that they held such views and then trying to change the subject; their nervousness made them look like they were hiding an extremist agenda.

This time, Republicans actually have a response: legislation that highlights how abortion rights Democrats are out of step with the public. Most Americans think abortion should be legal in cases of rape, but they also think it should be illegal in the second and third trimesters of pregnancy. The Gallup Organization has never found more than 27 percent of the public supporting legal second-trimester abortion.

The last time Republicans fought a national election when specific anti-abortion legislation was at issue was in 2004. Republicans had passed a popular ban on partial-birth abortion. Most Democrats opposed it, but had a hard time justifying their stance. After losing the election, many Democrats – including their presidential candidate, John Kerry – said the perception that they were extreme on abortion had contributed to their defeat.

The country’s views on abortion, as measured in polls, haven’t changed much since 2004. (If anything there has been a slight movement in the anti-abortion direction.) And Republicans once again have specific legislation that doesn’t include their least popular stands and highlights Democratic extremism.

Most Democrats haven’t considered the possibility that the politics of the issue have thus moved back in favor of Republicans.

One warning sign came when John McCormack, a writer for the conservative Weekly Standard, asked Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi why she condemned Gosnell while also seeking to keep late-term abortions legal. Instead of answering, she sputtered about how the question offended her as a Catholic and a mother. Democrats who come from less uniformly liberal districts will have to do better.

Defending late-term abortions is going to be especially hard for Democrats from red states, such as Davis, to sustain politically. Davis won’t keep the Texas bill from passing, and the odds are against her becoming governor. She can still look forward to a consolation prize: a star-studded play about her greatness. Broadway loves defeated Texas liberals.

• Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior editor at National Review.

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