Overturning Roe v. Wade has been a foundational purpose of Republican politics for nearly half a century. The quest to end constitutional protections for abortion rights has determined who runs for office, how they run, and what they do when they win. It’s channeled massive sums of money into remaking all three branches of government at the state and federal level and ways that reverberate far beyond the immediate issue at hand. The anti-abortion movement gave us, in different ways, George W. Bush and Donald Trump, and the world-changing chaos that entailed. But in the days since Politico published a leaked opinion from Justice Samuel Alito that would finally scrap the 1973 ruling, the response from the party has been distinctly subdued.
In the aftermath, many Republicans, such as Sen. Mitch McConnell preferred to focus on the mechanics of the story, publicly deriding the leak as a historic breach of norms. (Which it is—thank God.)
Others downplayed the significance of the ruling itself, citing the wide variance in how abortion is regulated at the state level. The conservative commentator Erick Erickson tweeted that, “Nothing is actually going to change.”
There weren’t the kind of vocal affirmations that you might expect upon achieving a goal that has galvanized and defined the conservative movement for generations. And that cautious, changing-the-subject response brought to mind the radio silence from the right last year, when the Supreme Court gave Texas permission to temporarily nullify Roe through a shadow-docket decision.
Some of this is just reflexive, for sure, but this shift in tone is also deliberate. This week Axios snagged a polling memo from the National Republican Senatorial Committee advising candidates to say that “Abortion should be avoided as much as possible” (as opposed to outlawed and criminalized) and encouraging them to “be the compassionate consensus builder on abortion policy.”
In one key Senate race in Nevada, the former attorney general Adam Laxalt toed the current Republican line very pointedly—blasting the leak while in the same breath calling the right to abortion “settled law in the state.” As the Nevada Independent’s Jon Ralston noted, Laxalt himself has previously talked about unsettling that law, and a few days later, he was feted at a dinner for the state’s Right to Life organization. It’s very obvious when politicians like that suddenly start acting like this.
Another Republican in an important Senate race, Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, told Politico’s Burgess Everett that “the political ramifications of this thing are being overstated,” and that “It’s just never been an issue for me in Wisconsin.”
Roe, of course, has never not been an issue for someone like Johnson. To a Republican who has been running for office over the last few decades, Roe has not been an issue in their campaigns so much as it has been the underlying condition of all of their campaigns, the very shape of partisan politics itself. You haven’t seen a lot of Republicans telling primary voters over the years that they want to find “consensus” on abortion rights.
You could read into this conspicuously evasive and muted response a fear of an angry electorate, and you might be right, at least in some races, in some states. But it’s also a well-founded belief in the power of cynicism itself. After working for decades to accomplish this one thing, the roadmap going forward is to stop anyone from even talking about it.