ELB Book Corner: Mary Zielger: “Transforming the Republican Party”

I am pleased to welcome Mary Ziegler to the ELB Book Corner, author of the new book, Dollars for Life: The Anti-Abortion Movement and the Fall of the Republican Establishment (Yale, 2022). Here is the second of three posts:

The consensus view of political scientists and historians for some time had been that the GOP had said all the right things when it came to abortion but used very little political capital on the issue, when it came to judicial nominations, federal legislation, or executive orders. That was how antiabortion lawyers understood the lay of the land after Casey. Lawyers for groups like the National Right to Life Committee believed that Republican presidents preferred to pick the justices who would be the most easily confirmed—and ultimately made decisions to maximize their own electability.

This kind of justice, in turn, would be more likely to worry about the institutional legitimacy of the Court, or about her own legacy. These kinds of considerations might lead to hesitation when the moment came to consider the reversal of Roe. To get Roe reversed, antiabortion lawyers believed in the 1990s, would require justices who cared less about public opinion and were indifferent to backlash. That, in turn, seemed to require a very different kind of Republican leadership.

For the moment, it seemed that Republican leaders prized electable candidates, at least in national elections. Antiabortion leaders pointed as an example to the 1996 campaign of Pat Buchanan, a kind of proto-Trump who railed against working women, called for the criminalization of abortion, and waved a literal pitchfork. Republican primary voters had adored Buchanan early in the 1996 election season, especially compared to Bob Dole, the dull and dour senator from Kansas, but many in the GOP feared that Buchanan was too extreme for general election voters, and major donors and party leaders managed to bury Buchanan’s candidacy in a mountain of soft money. For the leaders of groups like the National Right to Life Committee, the key was to find a way to ensure the success of the next Pat Buchanan—and to counterbalance the financial muscle of traditional party leaders.

Most simply, focusing on campaign finance might make it easier for Republicans—who historically outraised the competition—to win elections and cast votes against abortion. But the movement’s vision for campaign finance was more complex. Becoming adept at circumventing existing rules—or helping to lead the charge to gut them in Congress or court—could make the antiabortion movement seem to be a more valuable political partner. Well before Roe, Americans strongly opposed the kind of outright ban preferred by most in the antiabortion movement, and at various points in the past, that made partnering with the movement seem to be a political liability. Becoming a major player in the world of campaign finance could give ambivalent Republicans a reason to stick with the antiabortion movement.

Over time, in the lead-up to and aftermath of major decisions like Citizens United and SpeechNow, the campaign finance struggle served an additional aim: creating opportunities for outside spending groups, like nonprofits and super PACs. Of course, traditional party leaders could (and did) form their own such groups (Karl Rove, perhaps the ultimate establishment figure, created one of the most famous early super PACs). But it would be harder for the pro-electability party insiders to control outside spending groups. That might make it easier for conservative movements to have more of a say—and to save the next Pat Buchanan.

All of this did not solve the movement’s problems. A politician like Pat Buchanan might take the right positions on abortion, and might answer to grassroots conservatives. But there was a reason Republican leaders had not wanted to see someone like Buchanan at the top of the ticket: he would lose. To reverse Roe, then, the movement had to find a way to exercise power when its ultimate goal remained deeply unpopular.

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