After George W. Bush won re-election in 2004, Democrats had a bit of a freak-out about social issues. Prominent strategists, and even their losing presidential candidate, John Kerry, blamed the defeat partly on the perception that they were too extreme on abortion.
This year, Democrats have no such worries. They’re campaigning hard on social issues, saying it’s their opponents who are out of step with the public. And many Republicans are responding defensively: The most prominent Republican ad on same-sex marriage during this cycle came from Oregon Senate candidate Monica Wehby, who is touting her support for it.
But it’s a mistake to assume the public is moving substantially leftward on social issues or that Democrats now have a long-term advantage on them – because not all “social issues” are the same.
On same-sex marriage and legalized marijuana, public attitudes have, in fact, changed. A majority has gone from opposing to supporting both of them. That doesn’t necessarily mean that opposing them is going to hurt Republicans: It depends on, among other things, whether there’s a large pool of voters who would be open to Republican candidates if only they supported gay marriage. It does, however, mean that Republicans are going to talk less about these issues.
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On the other hand, the public has not shifted on abortion, which has been a politically important social issue for much longer than same-sex marriage or legal pot have been. When pollsters for CBS ask people whether abortion should be “generally available,” or Gallup asks whether it should be “legal only under certain circumstances,” the answers look nearly identical to what they were a decade ago. The same is true when Gallup asks whether people consider themselves “pro-life” or “pro-choice.”
What has changed in the politics of abortion is the context in which campaigns bring it up. In several recent elections, the most discussed abortion issue has been whether it should be legal in cases of rape. Public opinion hasn’t changed on that, either: At no point in the last 40 years would a ban have been popular. Personhood initiatives, which attempt to ban all abortion by referendum, have never been popular, either.
But in previous elections, Republicans were on more favorable ground. They sought to prohibit partial-birth abortion, and the public was on their side – so much so that many Democrats felt it necessary to join them in opposition to it. The problem for Republicans is that they won on partial-birth abortion – it is now a federal crime – and haven’t found a similar issue where the public is on their side.
Compounding the problem is that many Republicans don’t understand that they need to find such an issue. They don’t grasp that not talking about abortion isn’t really an option for them. They can either talk about it on terms that are favorable to them – say, by embracing the popular idea of banning abortions after 20 weeks – or they can let Democrats set terms of the debate that are unfavorable to them. In Arkansas, Republican Tom Cotton is using the issues of late-term abortion and taxpayer subsidies for abortion in his race to unseat Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor.
The politics of same-sex marriage and pot have changed, and it’s hard to see how they would change back. Abortion is a different story. On that issue, Republican defensiveness is not inevitable. It’s a choice, and it’s one that should be reversed.
Ramesh Ponnuru, a Bloomberg View columnist, is a senior editor for National Review, where he has covered national politics for 18 years, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a resident fellow at the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics.