The G.O.P. Inside Conversation on Roe

Nancy Pelosi
Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images
Julia Ioffe
June 28, 2022

You would think that, with a month of advance warning about how the Supreme Court was going to rule, Democrats would have been better prepared for the day that Roe v. Wade finally fell. And yet, when it happened, Democrats did what Democrats do best: make memes, get mad at each other, and do little of consequence. 

There was a bit of private pearl-clutching in Washington when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted that her fellow party members need to stop fundraising off the repeal of Roe and actually do something. Even Republicans who had spent the last two years peddling the “Dems in disarray” line thought it was a little harsh. “I was surprised at A.O.C. blaming the Democratic leadership,” one G.O.P. aide told me. “I was like, woah.” 

But A.O.C. hit on a sentiment that is quietly but widely shared in Washington, especially among Democrats. Even they admit to being in disarray. “What the fuck are we doing?” a Democratic lobbyist fumed. “What the fuck is the D.N.C. doing? I’m on their listserv and I haven’t gotten a fucking thing, have you? Every woman I’ve seen on social media that’s so mad, I’ve seen no link to, hey, here’s where you vote. If this was the G.O.P. side, that whole apparatus would be mobilized. From the Koch brothers to the N.R.A. to big oil, they would be efficiently mobilizing their base right now.” Asked what they expected to see from fellow Democrats, the lobbyist responded, “I think we’re going to see a lot of hashtags, and some rallies, and a lot of useless shit.”  

Others felt totally lost and deflated. “People are calling, asking what they should do, and we’re like, Vote? I guess?” one Democratic Senate staffer told me. The end of Roe, after all, returns the abortion battle to the states, replacing a baseline right to reproductive healthcare with a patchwork of restrictions and outright bans arranged atop America’s dichromatic political map. That divide is likely to energize voters in contested purple states where local elections will now be invested with monumental import. 

But even people who advise Planned Parenthood told me the organization has little idea—and still fewer plans—for what to do at the national level, other than to fundraise and tell people to vote in the midterms. It’s a call that Democrats themselves know rings hollow. They called on their supporters to vote even though voting in 2018 didn’t stop Mitch McConnell from ramming through Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination in 15 days in a direct reversal of his own doctrine that stole Merrick Garland’s seat in 2016. Democrats voted bigger, better, harder in 2020, got the White House, the Senate, and the House, and it still didn’t get them a Green New Deal, paid family leave, or really much else on their legislative wish list. Nor did it help them, despite the House passing a Hail-Mary bill to codify Roe into law, to save the 50-year-old abortion rights precedent. 

It turns out that telling people to vote and vote and vote some more in a system designed for minority rule, and where gerrymandering requires the Democrats to produce bigger and bigger turnout for smaller and smaller margins in Washington, can start to ring a bit hollow. How can you vote and win—and yet still lose so badly? Through the din of rage on social media and spontaneous protest in the street, even the most dedicated Democrats could hear the unmistakable, echoing sound of defeat.   

But is everything lost? Recent polling suggests that a strong majority of Americans disapprove of the Supreme Court’s decision and that abortion rights, albeit with some restrictions, remain widely popular. And a new Marist poll released on Tuesday seemed to indicate that Democrats are mad enough to go vote about it in the midterms. But as my colleague Tara Palmeri wisely and correctly pointed out, the midterms are four months away, an eternity in a political system dominated by goldfish-memory news cycles. See, for example, how quickly the American people forgot about Ukraine, a country that, just four months ago, seemed to rend their hearts, only to be shoved aside by the mass shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde. And just when Democrats managed to get a bipartisan gun-control package—the first in three decades—signed into law in record time, Samuel Alito erased their victory, pushing Democrats out of a winning news cycle and into one of defeat. 

Under the foam of the ever-shifting news cycle, though, the one constant, as Republicans I’ve spoken to keep reminding me, is the economic fallout of an overheated pandemic recovery and Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine: inflation and high energy prices. “Nothing in your life will change [after the repeal of Roe] if you live in Pennsylvania but every day, you will see $5 gas at the gas station as you drive to work and higher grocery store prices,” a Senate G.O.P. leadership aide said. “It’s [Democrats’] wishful thinking that it would help them when they have so much going against them.” Another Republican, a former elected official, told me that he doesn’t expect the Roe reversal to help Democrats come November. “People will be voting on high energy prices and the situation on the southern border,” he predicted. “They will not be voting on January 6 and they sure as hell won’t be voting on Roe v. Wade.

Democrats seem to agree—and are almost resigned to their fate. “Since I got to D.C. over a decade ago, the thinking was that [repealing Roe v. Wade] would never happen because smart Republicans knew it was bad politics, that they would walk right up to the line and not do it, because if they did, Democrats thought it would give them a landslide,” a Democratic strategist told me. (“I guess you can call me a Democratic strategist,” he quipped bitterly, “if you can even be one these days.”) “Now Democrats are realizing that that’s not the case.” 

It is unlikely that nearly enough white Republican women will start voting Democratic because of this issue—which is in part what Democrats have been counting on. And increased Democratic turnout has to be in the exact right places to make a real difference in Washington. I asked the strategist—if we can call him that—why Democrats had made these assumptions if they now seem to be so obviously off the mark? “Because they were wrong and dumb,” the strategist spat. “It’s the same reason they thought that all Hispanics would vote Democratic. I think Democrats are in for a rude awakening” in November.

As for what the party can do to shore up abortion rights, the strategist complained that they “don’t know what the fuck to do, because there’s not really anything you can do.” 

That’s not exactly true. Some Democrats, like Rep. Sara Jacobs, are fighting to keep apps that help women track their menstrual cycles from turning that data over to the governments of states that have, essentially, criminalized abortion. Others are trying to make sure that Uber doesn’t do the same for women who use its service to visit an abortion clinic. California Governor Gavin Newsom is mulling an amendment to his state’s constitution. New York City Mayor Eric Adams has promised that his city will remain a pro-choice haven. Various business are promising that they will pay for their employees’ travel should they need to travel out of state to seek an abortion.

But it’s all damage control at the margins. It’s hard not to feel that these actions are themselves admissions of a fait accompli, a few lone skirmishes with die-hard holdouts after the war has been resoundingly lost. 

What I found striking in my conversations over the weekend, however, wasn’t what Democrats told me, but what Republicans did. They were all careful not to gloat, and to frame this not as an issue of women’s bodily autonomy but as one of restoring a measure of democracy to the people living in conservative, anti-abortion states. They were also shocked at how little the Democrats were doing to fight them when such a clear path of retaliation lay open to them while they controlled the House and Senate. “If I were the libs, I would be putting forward a flurry of legislation like making birth control free and widely available,” the G.O.P. aide told me. “If you say it’s not widely enough available, go after that, cover the gaps. Don’t go for the really big stuff, just split the G.O.P. conference as much as you can, force people to vote. If the goal is really protecting women or advancing legislation that could actually pass, then take every potential approach you can.” 

In other words, Republicans are saying that Democrats should be forcing them onto the record with votes that chip away at their stated, pro-life position. If you’re so worried about infant life, in other words, let’s have a vote on free diapers and free childcare. If you say it’s not a gun issue but a mental health issue, let’s vote on funding the shit out of mental health. 

And here’s another sliver of hope for Democrats, also from a Republican. Don’t worry about a national abortion ban. Why? “Because of the filibuster,” the Senate leadership aide said. “A lot of Senate Democrats are about to rediscover their love of the filibuster.”