GOP Rep. Nancy Mace on abortion limits: "The Handmaid's Tale was not supposed to be a roadmap"

I did not have “Republican congresswoman compares post-Roe restrictions to ‘The Handmaid’s Tale'” on my political bingo card this year.

But Mace is passionate about this issue. She was one of eight House Republicans who voted last month for the Democrats’ House bill guaranteeing access to contraception. And she felt strongly enough about it that she wasn’t content that day to advertise her position through her vote alone:

I doubt we’d have gotten a “Handmaid’s Tale” reference on “Meet the Press” yesterday if her primary against Trump-backed Katie Arrington were still to come. But Mace survived that challenge and now gets to run in a purplish Trump +6 district in November with the wind at her back thanks to the national environment. She can afford to take some risks politically to reach out to the center.

Hearing a Republican politician adopt lefty rhetoric to criticize abortion restrictions feels like a gaffe. But is it? After last week’s blowout in Kansas’s abortion referendum, “pro-life with exceptions” seems like a shrewd bet for a GOP pol in a not super-conservative part of South Carolina. Mace is showing sound instincts here:

A poll of South Carolina taken last year found that “73 percent of South Carolinians, including 67 percent of Republicans, believe a woman should be able legally to get an abortion if her doctor says the pregnancy is a threat to her health or if the fetus is not viable. Seven in 10 South Carolinians also believe a woman should be able to get an abortion for a pregnancy caused by rape or incest.” Post-Roe, with the prospect of new abortion restrictions now real rather than an academic exercise, it’s conceivable that those numbers have grown.

I don’t think Mace is pursuing the “incremental” strategy proposed by Dan McLaughlin and others last week after the Kansas referendum, which urges the GOP to focus on gestational limits (e.g., 15 weeks) in lieu of total bans in hopes of building a consensus that abortion should have *some* restrictions. Once that consensus is established, then pro-lifers can agitate for more draconian bans. Mace strikes me as a true moderate on the subject who’d like to see the law settle permanently at something like 15 weeks with generous exceptions, not merely as a stopover en route to the final policy destination.

But in the near term it’ll probably be hard to tell those two camps apart. Republicans are spooked by the outcome in Kansas and may ease off their advocacy for strict bans, whether because they’ve pivoted strategically to incrementalism or because they favor compromise like Mace does. I think the “cleanest” way politically to settle the issue would be to hold ranked-choice ballot referendums in all 50 states next year and let the people themselves decide what sort of abortion regime they prefer. Give them five options, say — total ban, ban after six weeks (i.e. a heartbeat bill), ban after the first trimester, ban after viability, and no restrictions. Maybe a second ballot question could ask which exceptions should be allowed, assuming that “no restrictions” doesn’t win on the first question. Which it wouldn’t.

The GOP staking out a moderate position near-term would also cause some tensions among Democrats. The “no restrictions” left will never yield, but what about more centrist Dems like Joe Biden? Officially he and every other leader in the party are “no restrictions” fanatics too, but that’s partly because they paid no political price during the Roe era for staking out extreme positions. If the GOP put a popular 15-week ban on the table and had Nancy Mace on TV stumping for it, would Biden want to throw the weight of the Democratic Party — and his reelection campaign — behind a radical alternative?

[I]nside the West Wing, President Biden has made it clear that he is uncomfortable even using the word abortion, according to current and former advisers. In speeches and public statements, he prefers to use the word sparingly, focusing instead on broader phrases, like “reproductive health” and “the right to choose,” that might resonate more widely with the public…

“This is not necessarily the guy that I am sure most activists wanted in the seat when this happened,” said Jamie L. Manson, the president of Catholics for Choice, referring to the court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade. “It’s unfortunate because he has so much power and we need him to really get out of his comfort zone.”…

Now, a growing chorus of women’s groups, progressive Democrats and abortion rights activists see the decision to overturn Roe as an indictment of [Biden’s] middle-ground approach, saying Democrats like Mr. Biden have tiptoed too carefully around the issue for years.

The reality of hyperpolarization in this era means neither party will give ground easily even though they have a long-term interest in doing so. There’s a reason why red states celebrated the Dobbs ruling by scrambling to push bans without exceptions, just as there’s a reason why Biden will never step back from abortion on demand so long as there’s a chance he’s running in 2024. Neither side wants to disappoint its base by being the first to blink in the ultimate culture war. The only way to get to the middle is by having extreme positions lose at the polls, which is why my ranked-choice idea is the fastest way to a truce. But in lieu of that, if Kansas is any guide, the GOP will be forced to steer towards the middle before Democrats are.

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