Ahead of his second State of the Union address, some on the religious right pushed President Trump to address social issues. More specifically, they wanted him “to speak from the heart” on abortion.
Richard Land, who sits on the evangelical advisory board that regularly counsels the president, wishes he could take credit for the result.
“But I think you have to give more credit to Cuomo and Northam,” the president of the Southern Evangelical Seminary told RealClearPolitics — referencing the Democratic governors of New York and Virginia.
Not only have Andrew Cuomo and Ralph Northam embraced legislation making abortion legal at any time, even in the moments leading up to delivery – they’ve used inflammatory when discussing it. After signing a bill late last month expanding the circumstances under which third-trimester abortions are legal, Cuomo directed that the One World Trade Center and other New York landmarks be lit up in pink to “celebrate” the achievement — that was the word he used.
In Richmond, Northam was even more controversial when discussing a bill proposed by Virginia Democrats allowing abortion in some instances even during delivery. A physician himself, the governor tried explaining under what circumstances this might occur.
“It’s done in cases where there may be severe deformities, there may be a fetus that is nonviable,” he told a local radio host. “So in this particular example, if a mother is in labor, I can tell you exactly what would happen.
“The infant would be delivered,” he continued. “The infant would be kept comfortable. The infant would be resuscitated if that’s what the mother and the family desired, and then a discussion would ensue between the physicians and the mothers.”
Conservatives were quick to label this infanticide. And though in Northam’s case, the controversy quickly receded in the face of a photograph on his medical school yearbook page depicting a man in blackface standing next to someone in Ku Klux Klan garb, when the dust settles after the 2020 elections, Northam’s rhetorical adventure – and Andrew Cuomo’s — might go down as the pivot point in which abortion became a decisive issue in a second consecutive presidential election.
To the delight of the right, Donald Trump lit into the Democrats on that issue this week.
In Tuesday’s address, the president condemned them for legislation allowing “a baby to be ripped from the mother’s womb.” He accused them of authorizing the execution of “a baby after birth.” And he asked Congress for a 20-week abortion ban.
“To defend the dignity of every person,” Trump said, “I ask Congress to pass legislation to prohibit the late-term abortion of children who can feel pain in the mother’s womb.”
Giving this issue prime-time exposure was enough to send Land’s phone ringing off the hook as caller after religious caller sang the praises of “the most demonstrably pro-life president we’ve ever had.”
Trump’s emphasis in his speech was an overture to social conservatives who had cared enough about this issue to set aside their qualms about voting for a thrice-married philandering television celebrity. It was also the introduction of an unmistakable demarcation between the president and the field of candidates lining up for a chance to challenge him in 2020.
In the last presidential election, Trump promised to nominate pro-life Supreme Court justices, to make permanent the prohibition on taxpayer funding of abortion, and to defund Planned Parenthood. It was a political come-to-Jesus moment, and it worked: Exit polls show that 80 percent of white evangelicals pulled the lever for Trump.
Keeping this flock of voters faithful is critical for re-election, says Tony Perkins, president of the social conservative juggernaut the Family Research Council. But religious voters aren’t the only ones who care about abortion, Perkins noted in an RCP interview. According to more than two decades of Gallup polling, he is right.
About 60 percent of Americans support abortion in the first trimester. As pregnancy continues, though, support drops. Just 28 percent support abortion in the second trimester. By the third trimester, only 13 percent.
“I don’t think the left realizes they have a tiger by the tail here,” Perkins said. “Maybe the wrong end of the tiger actually.”
Judging from the reaction to the State of the Union address, few things seem to unite the modern Democratic Party like support for late-term abortion. When Trump called for the 20-week abortion ban, Republicans delivered a standing ovation. Every Democrat in the chamber, with the exception of West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, remained seated.
This puts Democrats out of the mainstream, argues Karlyn Bowman, a senior fellow who studies public opinion polls for the conservative American Enterprise Institute. She likens support for abortion throughout a pregnancy to the inverse extremism that kept former Republican Rep. Todd Akin out of the Senate. Running in Missouri against incumbent Democrat Claire McCaskill, Akin wrecked his own candidacy by asserting that rape victims have no need for abortions. His argument? The preposterous theory that in cases of “legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”
Voters are adverse to the opposite poles of the argument, Bowman told RCP. While vocal groups stake out strict pro-life and pro-choice positions, the majority are somewhere in the middle.
“They want to keep abortion legal but they certainly want to see significant regulations on its use,” she said, pointing to the Gallup data. “People strongly support restrictions on third-trimester abortions.”
As a result, Trump allies couldn’t be happier with the recently kindled debate over late-term abortion. “There is no question that our own governor has really blown this issue wide open,” said Ken Cuccinelli, the former Virginia attorney general who lost his 2013 race for governor against Democrat Terry McAuliffe.
In a Monday meeting with conservatives prior to the speech, Trump didn’t sound like he needed any convincing on the issue, a source in the room told RCP. He wasn’t looking for “encouragement, just affirmation that this is something that needs to be said.”
When he addressed Congress the next night, Trump echoed words he first employed during the final presidential debate against Hillary Clinton.
“With what Hillary is saying, in the ninth month, you can take the baby and rip the baby out of the womb of the mother just prior to the birth of the baby,” Trump said in October 2016. “Now you can say that that’s okay, and Hillary can say that that’s okay, but it’s not okay with me.”
“Well, that is not what happens in these cases and using that kind of scare rhetoric is just terribly unfortunate,” Clinton argued back. “This is one of the worst possible choices that any woman and her family has to make, and I do not believe the government should be making it.”
It was a pivotal moment that many believe solidified the evangelical vote for Trump. Moreover, leading Democratic presidential candidates are no longer expressing any misgivings about abortion. It’s giving some party strategists heartburn. Michael Wear, who led religious outreach for the Obama campaign in 2012, fears Democrats never “learned the lesson of 2016.”
Democrats shouldn’t rely on overly technical responses, Wear told RCP, and they certainly didn’t always embrace abortion as “sacrosanct” as Clinton did. He believes they should follow the example of the last Democrat to win national office.
“It is completely consistent with Democratic values, and with the vast majority of the Democratic base, to defend the legal status of Roe while also pointing out that the abortion rate reached its lowest under Barrack Obama,” Wear said, “and that is something we are proud of and should seek to build on.”
Even Obama considered limits on late-term abortions appropriate, Wear noted, pointing to a 2012 interview with Relevant magazine where the then-president endorsed the idea of individual states passing such restrictions.
Refusing to even entertain the idea of compromise doesn’t just leave millions of potential votes on the table. Wear says it undercuts the campaign of any 2020 Democrat running to unify the country.
“If you are going to pursue divisive rhetoric and policies on this issue, what does it even mean to say you’re a unity candidate? To say that you’re going to bring Americans together?”
Any Senate Democrat with presidential ambitions may soon be put to that test if Trump’s call for a vote on a 20-week abortion ban is heeded. Similar legislation failed last January by a vote of 51-46.
Democratic Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Kamala Harris of California, and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts all voted “no.”
Meanwhile, at the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday, Trump picked up where he left off during the State of the Union address. The president told the overwhelmingly evangelical crowd that he wouldn’t change. “I will never let you down,” he vowed.