In all of Donald Trump’s dithering over his position on abortion restrictions, a new response stands out.
Asked by the Messenger website what he thinks of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s having recently signed into law a ban on abortions after the sixth week of pregnancy, Trump offered this: “If you look at what DeSantis did, a lot of people don’t even know if he knew what he was doing. But he signed six weeks, and many people within the pro-life movement feel that that was too harsh.”
DeSantis’s six-week ban “too harsh”? It’s not clear who in the “pro-life movement” Trump was referring to, but polling suggests that a six-week ban is quite popular in the Republican Party. A recent Fox News poll showed Republicans in favor, 62 percent to 33 percent. A Wall Street Journal poll last month showed Republican primary voters favored such a restriction by an even greater margin, 68 percent to 27 percent.
It’s not exactly news that Republican presidential hopefuls are struggling with this issue. DeSantis, for one, quietly signed the six-week ban and hasn’t talked about it much since. Nikki Haley received some criticism over the weekend for calling a federal abortion ban impractical. They clearly worry about how such restrictions might play with the broader public in a general election.
But when it comes to Trump, we’re talking about a former president who has often shown little concern for nettlesome issues like electability. His North Star has long been whatever the right wing of the Republican base wants. And yet now even he is suggesting that maybe this is too far? After recently running into trouble with the nation’s most prominent antiabortion group?
Trump’s most recent comments epitomize how scared the party is of the abortion issue. But it’s worth digging into why, and also how long this arm’s-length approach to restrictions can last.
The above polls don’t tell the whole story, of course. Six-week bans are unpopular outside the GOP base. But we aren’t necessarily talking about overwhelming majorities. The Fox poll pegged the American public as being opposed to a six-week ban 52-44, while the Wall Street Journal poll put it at 53-41 against.
The Journal poll also suggests there is plenty to be gained in the primary here. Specifically, it showed that 50 percent of Republicans strongly favored a six-week ban, while just 16 percent strongly opposed one.
In other words, this is the kind of thing you’d expect Trump to embrace in a primary and worry about explaining to the rest of the electorate later. But even he is clearly uncomfortable. If anything, he seems to suggest (it’s difficult to know how deliberately) that he might actually target DeSantis for going too far to the right.
Certainly, part of this could be that Trump has never been a true believer on abortion. This is the man who in 1999 labeled himself “very pro-choice,” after all. He might simply believe that being the president who appointed the justices who overturned Roe v. Wade will be enough for antiabortion voters — and that going further than that creates unnecessary potential problems down the road.
There also seems to be something of a truce on this issue — stated or unstated — holding that GOP candidates dueling over the right flank on abortion could prove costly for the party as a whole. Perhaps certain people within the party or their campaigns have prevailed upon the candidates to mostly leave this issue alone for fear of marginalizing everyone.
Just to put a button on it, Republicans have spent decades trying to win the opportunity to sharply restrict abortion rights. Now, newly empowered, they’re not only unsure of what to say about whether the federal government should do that — their go-to has long been that this is a states’ rights issue — but their front-runner is now questioning the wisdom of a six-week ban at the state level.
Whatever the case, it’s difficult to see how this pattern can hold. Antiabortion groups are growing bolder in calling out the 2024 hopefuls for skirting the issue. At some point you’d figure one of them decides that going after the hardcore antiabortion vote is worth a shot. (Former vice president Mike Pence has tried this, but he has other problems with the base.) If Trump is going to suggest DeSantis went too far, what’s to stop DeSantis from deciding he’s going to own the six-week ban and try to get to Trump’s right? That would seem a reasonable play for a guy who’s trying to recover the ground he lost in the polls.
To the extent that DeSantis passes on that chance, it’ll be telling about how Republicans think this issue really plays.