Whenever the Democrats suffered one of their humiliating routs at the polls, the late U.S. Sen. Ernest Hollings of South Carolina would sometimes try to teach his party that “there is no education in the second kick of a mule.”
Well, OK then, how about the seventh kick?
How many whacks should it take for politicians to start strategically compromising even deeply held beliefs? It’s been a long time since Henry Clay blew his chance in 1840 by declaring, “I’d rather be right than president,” and got his wish. The operating principle of political campaigns today is more like the famous dictum of NFL coach Al Davis: “Just win, baby.”
Hollings tried to talk sense to the Democrats following such electoral debacles as the 1972 George McGovern campaign or Walter Mondale’s 1984 wipeout, but they pretty much persisted in waging the next race with the policies that lost them the last one. It was as if, in those days, they’d rather feel good about losing than do what it took to win.
But now, it’s the Democrats who just had a surprisingly good off-year election. And the Republicans seem intent on clinging stubbornly to a moral issue that voters have said, again and again, they favor the Democratic position on.
That issue is abortion. Never mind how you feel about the morality of ending a pregnancy or the legal wisdom of the U.S. Supreme Court, pro choice wins and right to life loses.
The high court ruling that last year turned abortion back to the states was a gift to Democrats. In fact, it’s about the only thing they’ve got going for them in 2024. And from the White House to state legislatures, Republican leaders have done all they can to dig in their heels on the wrong side.
Since the high court’s reversal, Florida and several other states have severely restricted abortion access. Gov. Ron DeSantis and Florida legislators – the Republicans in charge – opted to restrict that choice to the first six weeks of gestation, but a legal challenge is holding up the law.
There’s also a public-initiative petition campaign which, if it gets on the ballot next year, would amend our Constitution to enshrine abortion rights.
That’s what Ohio did last week, outvoting Republican efforts to thwart the public will. First, anti-abortion forces tried to raise the bar for passing any constitutional amendment to 60% of public turnout. Ohioans rejected that, then approved the pro-choice constitutional amendment by a wide margin.
What was specially significant about the latter vote is that Ohio became the seventh state in which voters have rejected severe abortion restrictions. Yeah, but how often has the “pro-life” side won a statewide referendum? Never.
If a football team was 0-7 at this time of the season, the coaches would be thinking of making big changes – like finding new jobs.
Republicans, though, are stuck with what they’ve advocated for more than a half century. And there are some more abortion bills coming up in a few more states in 2024.
In addition to the rout in Ohio, the GOP lost both chambers of the legislature to the Democrats in Virginia, where Gov. Glenn Youngkin had promised new abortion limits if voters gave his party solid control. Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, was re-elected over Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron, who adhered to the GOP hard line on abortion.
The trend was a late question for Republican presidential contenders in their Miami debate.
DeSantis said anti-abortion forces “have been caught flat-footed on these referenda” around the country. Nikki Haley and U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina proclaimed themselves “pro-life,” but Haley said a nationwide ban is not possible because neither party will have 60 votes in the Senate, while Scott (who has since dropped out) said he’d like to draw the line at 15 weeks’ gestation.
Vivek Ramaswamy said Republicans should have had an alternative to offer voters when the pro-choice forces put their proposal on the ballot. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said he likes leaving the decision to the states, because “I trust the people of this country.”
Abortion won’t decide the presidency or control of Congress next year. The economy, foreign wars, crime, immigration and inflation will. But it’s an important issue, especially for female voters and younger people, and the Republicans need to start learning before that mule kicks them again.
Bill Cotterell is a retired Capitol reporter for United Press International and the Tallahassee Democrat. He can be reached at email@example.com.