Well, they’re lying to somebody.
For more than a generation, Republican politicians have told anti-abortion groups that their highest priority was to create a Supreme Court majority that would overturn Roe v. Wade. That was their promise; that was their goal. That was the holy cause toward which many conservative Republicans worked.
Donald Trump, who at one point in life had been strongly pro-choice, took the pledge as well. In a letter to pro-life leaders during the 2016 campaign, Trump wrote that he was “committed to nominating pro-life justices to the U.S. Supreme Court.” When asked during a debate whether he wanted the court to overturn Roe, he replied in the affirmative.
“If we put another two or perhaps three justices on, that's really what’s going to be — that will happen and that will happen automatically in my opinion because I am putting pro-life justices on the court. I will say this: It will go back to the states and the states will then make a determination.”
Trump got his first pick in Neil Gorsuch. With the retirement of Anthony Kennedy, the 5th and deciding vote defending Roe v. Wade, Trump now has that second Supreme Court pick. Clearly, Trump and his aides believe that his nominee to replace Kennedy, Brett Kavanaugh, will overturn Roe. The anti-abortion groups now lauding the Kavanaugh pick also believe he will provide the needed 5th pick.
“I have great hope that ... now there may be five judges to allow states under the authority of the 10th Amendment, to enact their own [policies] into law on the abortion issue,” responded Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List.
But a strange thing seems to be happening.
Take Leonard Leo, the head of the conservative Federalist Society and the man who led Trump’s search committee to replace Kennedy. As Ed Whelan once wrote in National Review, “No one has been more dedicated to the enterprise of building a Supreme Court that will overturn Roe v. Wade than the Federalist Society’s Leonard Leo.”
Yet that same Leonard Leo now dismisses concern about Roe’s future as “a bit of a scare tactic and rank speculation more than anything else." U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a pro-life Republican from South Carolina, likewise predicts that Roe won’t be overturned “without a good reason,” and claims to believe that there isn’t one.
That’s nonsense. With five votes, they’ll have the best reason of all: Because they can.
So why do they play so coy? They do so in part to downplay abortion in the upcoming confirmation battle, hoping to give Republican pro-choice moderates at least plausible deniability in voting to confirm Kavanaugh. And with midterms looming, they want to pretend that they’re not doing what they are so clearly doing. The polls explain why:
In a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll, just 29 percent of Americans said they wanted Roe overturned. In a Pew poll taken in December 2016, just 28 percent said they wanted Roe overturned, which is a 6-point decline since 1992. And in a Politico/Morning consult poll taken in late June, just 29 percent said they wanted Trump to appoint a Supreme Court nominee opposed to abortion rights; 52 percent want a justice who supports such rights.
That’s pretty consistent, from poll to poll. Some 30 percent of the electorate is devoted to overturning Roe, but the modern Republican Party has become disproportionately in debt to that 30 percent. They turn out to vote, they donate, they work. And now that they are oh-so-close to getting what they have claimed to want for so long, Republicans also realize that it would come with a very heavy political price.