The Memo: Democrats search for path ahead on abortion

Protesters are seen outside the Supreme Court on Tuesday, May 3, 2022 after the leak of a draft majority opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito preparing for the court to overturn Roe v. Wade later this year.
Greg Nash
Protesters are seen outside the Supreme Court on Tuesday, May 3, 2022 after the leak of a draft majority opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito preparing for the court to overturn Roe v. Wade later this year.

The initial shock is beginning to fade over reports that the Supreme Court is set to strike down the constitutional right to abortion — but the political battle is only beginning.

Democrats, horrified by the likely loss of a right that was enshrined almost half a century ago, are plotting a course ahead, yet the path looks uncertain.

Some of the measures Democrats are proposing seem more symbolic than substantive.

And it’s not assured the party will be gifted with a political silver lining in November’s midterm elections, even though some party strategists hope that is the case.

Republicans, meanwhile, have generally sought to keep the spotlight on the initial leak of the draft decision written by Justice Samuel Alito — a leak that Chief Justice John Roberts blasted as “absolutely appalling” on Thursday.

GOP congressional leaders including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) have already called for a probe into the disclosure.

The Republican focus on the leak betrays some level of political nervousness about leaning too hard into a celebration of the Supreme Court’s draft decision. 

Opinion polls consistently show a solid majority of Americans in favor of upholding Roe, even as more abstract questions about personal views of abortion split more evenly.

A Politico-Morning Consult poll on Thursday indicated that voters oppose overturning Roe by a margin of almost 2 to 1.

Democrats hope that liberal voters — women in particular — might be more motivated than before to turn out in November if the Supreme Court goes ahead and overturns Roe in the next couple of months.

“This will be a mobilizing moment for all these folks who may not have been engaged in the past, when they see health care and rights being taken away” said Abigail Collazo, a Democratic operative. 

“This is about more than just abortion rights, this is literally about the stripping away of civil liberties in this country.”

But some Democrats worry about whether the likely loss of abortion rights could feed into a broader narrative about their party’s seeming inability to counter conservative advances even while holding the levers of power.

“There is some disappointment in focus groups that I’ve seen that we have got the White House and Congress and yet things are not moving in the direction that we were promised,” Democratic strategist Julie Roginsky told this column. 

“That’s not just Roe, but Roe is a very good example of it. Now for the first time in, I believe, the history of the United States, a right is being taken away.”

Democratic politicians are still grappling with how they might limit that loss.

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said on Thursday that he would schedule a vote next week to codify Roe’s protections in legislation.

At Thursday’s White House media briefing, press secretary Jen Psaki said President Biden “supports and would love to sign a bill into law codifying Roe.”

But there is no real chance of that happening. The party does not have the 60 votes it needs to overcome a Senate filibuster nor the 50 votes to abolish the filibuster.

An even more controversial approach would be to try to expand the Supreme Court from its current nine justices. Progressive Democrats including Reps. Ilhan Omar (Minn.) and Jamaal Bowman (N.Y.) have advocated that course. 

But Biden was opposed to such a move as a candidate, and there is no sign that he has changed his mind since. 

The more likely path forward for Democrats seems to be a combination of mass activism in the next few weeks and actions on the state level to protect abortion rights.

Marches are planned across the nation for May 14 by groups supporting abortion rights.

And while around half the states in the nation are projected to ban abortion if Roe falls, other, more liberal states are doubling down in their efforts to protect it.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) is pushing for an amendment to his state’s constitution that would, he said, “enshrine the right to choose.”

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D), who has said she is “absolutely horrified” by the possible overturning of Roe, has also promised that the Empire State will “always be there for anyone who needs reproductive health care, including an abortion.”

When it comes to the politics, Democrats believe they can pin some blame on Republicans for an overturning of Roe

Schumer’s Senate vote, for example, is more about getting Republicans on the record than entertaining any hope of legislation actually passing.

“All week, we’ve been seeing Republicans try to duck, dodge and dip from their responsibility for bringing Roe to the brink of total repeal,” Schumer said on Thursday. “Next week the American people will see crystal clear that the Republican Party will either side with the extremists who want to ban abortion without exceptions or side with women, with families and with the vast majority of Americans.”

But even independent experts argue Democrats face a fragile moment, where some voters might indeed rally to their cause but others might balk at their apparent impotence.

Among people who favor abortion rights, “I think there is going to be a feeling of, ‘Why can’t the federal government do something about this? Why can’t the Democrats fix this?,’” said Lindsey Cormack, a professor of political science at the Stevens Institute of Technology and an expert on women in politics.

“Without a decision to radically revise how [Democrats] would use the filibuster, there is really nothing that is going to stop this.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

Tags abortion Abortion Biden Charles Schumer Gavin Newsom John Roberts Julie Roginsky Kathy Hochul Kevin McCarthy protests Roe v. Wade Samuel Alito Supreme Court Supreme Court

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