Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham managed to anger both moderate and conservative wings of his party with a perilous abortion gambit dropped Tuesday afternoon, just weeks before November’s elections. His rollout is a strategic blunder.
Graham introduced a bill that seeks to create a federal ban on abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy (except in cases of rape, incest or a mother’s life is at risk), leaving room for states to adopt even stricter laws. While I agree with Graham’s goal to save unborn babies and respect support for the bill from venerable pro-life groups like Susan B. Anthony List, introducing it this way is ineffective in the long arc of the pro-life cause.
It’s a move that undermines Republicans who agree with the Supreme Court in returning the matter directly to “We The People.” And it angered progressives who want to weaponize it for November.
Predictably, Democrats pounced, seizing on Graham’s bill on the very day that President Joe Biden should be on defense, given a painful inflation report whose release led to the worst plummeting stock market since June 2020. This on the heels of a Friday report from the Federal Reserve showing U.S. household and nonprofit organization wealth fell by a staggering, record $6.1 trillion in the second quarter of 2022, even while household debt grew at an annual pace of 7.4% as consumers piled on credit card debt to cope with inflation.
Graham, who isn’t up for re-election until 2026, is forcing Republicans’ eye off the ball and grabbing news cycle oxygen that should be spent helping embattled GOP candidates nationwide. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre on Tuesday pointed out Graham’s flip-flopping.
“I’m gonna quote Lindsey Graham from Aug. 7, 2022,” Jean-Pierre said. “And he said, ‘I’ve been consistent: I think states should decide the issue of marriage and states should decide the issue of abortion.’ That’s from his own mouth.”
Not only does he appear to be inconsistent, but in practice, Graham’s bill would ban very few abortions, according to data from the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention. Just as in prior years, over 90% of the nearly 630,000 reported abortions in 2019 (the latest year available, though the figure is undoubtedly higher because CDC’s report excludes California, Maryland and New Hampshire) were performed at less than 13 weeks gestation, 6.2% at 14 to 20 weeks, and less than 1.0% at more than 21 weeks. So under Graham’s philosophy, nearly 60 million of the more than 63 million abortions performed in America since the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling should be allowed.
In some ways, this bill is a Rorschach test. It either goes too far or not far enough, leaving everyone dissatisfied. For people like me who would prefer only limited exceptions where a mother’s life is endangered, Graham is copping out by pushing for a 15-week ban. For us, Graham’s bill is too loose and could have a deflationary effect on conservative base turnout if the de facto GOP platform is allowing the deaths of millions of unborn children. If I were in the Senate, yes, I’d vote for this because it would save some lives. But Graham’s strategy here is weak.
Essentially, Graham’s bill gift wraps for Democrats a wedge talking point while in practice delivering limited lifesaving results under a bill that is highly unlikely to pass. Understandably, that’s why Graham’s GOP Senate colleagues dismissed his move to Politico, with West Virginia Sen. Shelley Moore Capito saying, “I’m not sure what he’s thinking here. But I don’t think there will be a rallying around that concept,” and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell saying that Republican senators “prefer that this be dealt with at the state level.”
Given even his own party leader’s reaction, it’s highly doubtful Graham would get enough support for bypassing the filibuster. He might argue it’s worth putting Democratic senators on the record, particularly when more voters than not support a 15-week abortion ban. A June Harvard CAPS-Harris Poll found that 60% of Democrats, 84% of Republicans and 70% of independents support such a measure, which was essentially the policy upheld when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Mississippi in Dobbs v. Jackson. So in that respect, Graham does have widespread support among voters for his bill, but life is all about crucial timing.
If Graham can’t even get a floor vote, he’s just throwing a deadweight around his party’s neck at a time when Republicans need to stay focused on fights they can win, including economic issues, crime and even now education reform.
Graham has a branding problem within his own party. The conservative base thinks he’s a squishy shapeshifter and not a rock-solid conservative (for example, he’s got only a 57% lifetime rating and a current 69% rating from the marquee conservative Heritage Foundation), while the liberal press tries to paint Graham as an extreme MAGA supporter. He could be making this move to try and burnish his credentials, but it will only backfire.
We are just weeks away from a national election. It is rushed and problematic for Graham to pursue this course of action. There’s still time for him to pivot away from this flawed proposal and instead help the embattled men and women trying to win seats in races nationwide. He can do that by listening and helping raise money instead of making their lives more difficult.