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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

An Omen From Spain On Cultural Issues

Sometimes you read some overseas news and it seems exceptionally relevant to U.S. politics, if not now then in the near future. That’s how I reacted to news from Spain about a sudden about-face on abortion policy, as I discussed today at TPMCafe:

A political party with close ties to religious conservatives wins a national election thanks to unhappiness with the ruling center-left party’s economic and financial performance. Challenged to redeem its platform promising a major reversal of landmark laws making abortion generally legal, the conservative party promulgates a law banning the procedure, with exceptions for rape, incest, and threats to the physical and mental health of the mother. Protests appear and spread as women object to the turning back of the clock. Public opinion surveys show 70 to 80 percent opposition to the new law. And finally, the conservative party’s prime minister relents, puts off implementation of the abortion ban on grounds that it would be reversed at the next change of party control, and instead proposes a face-saving measure providing for parental approval of abortions by minors. Anti-choicers and religious officials are very, very displeased and the governing party could be heading toward disarray.
In case you missed it, that’s what just happened in Spain. And it’s an omen for what might happen if U.S. Republicans regain power in 2016 thanks to general unhappiness with the Obama administration and the results of its economic policies. A long-overdue debt — sort of a balloon payment on an old mortgage — would reach maturity, and the GOP would be hard-pressed not to take some dramatic action on hot-button cultural issues, especially abortion. And the required gesture could be politically toxic. The Spanish law is significantly more liberal than what the national GOP has long been committed to; aside from the significant number of Republicans who oppose rape and incest exceptions to a hypothetical abortion ban, a health exception has long been anathema, and a mental health exception even more so (recall the sarcastic air quotes John McCain used for “health exceptions” in the 2008 presidential debate at Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church).

Even if Republicans dodge a confrontation between public opinion and their longstanding commitments to the antichoice movement, the same dynamic applies to other hot-button issues:

The bottom line is that a Republican Party — which like the anti-choice movement itself has long been Janus-faced, publicly focusing on rare and unpopular late-term abortions while never moving an inch from support from a total abortion ban with rare exceptions — would be forced by actual power to choose between a final betrayal of its “base” and an implicit mandate to ignore all that cultural stuff. Even if it’s abundantly clear to all the pundits that a triumphal GOP has gained control of the federal government for reasons that have zero to do with rolling back abortion rights — or GLBT rights, or a “path to citizenship” for undocumented immigrants — there’s also zero reason to assume that President Christie or Bush or Paul or Cruz might not find himself in exactly the position of Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy this week: admitting a big chunk of the party platform is quite simply too hot to handle. If it comes to that, a lot of conservative activists may lose their final illusions.

It’s another way of saying you can’t have it both ways forever.

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