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What McCarthy, GOP should fear about the never-ending abortion controversies

The 'creative ... jurisprudence' of conservative judges will haunt GOP in 2024, columnist writes

Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and other GOP members at a news conference on March 30.
Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and other GOP members at a news conference on March 30. (CQ Roll Call)

The showdown over the debt ceiling is beginning to resemble an old-time movie serial. It is easy to imagine Speaker Kevin McCarthy grinning with pleasure as he ties the U.S. Treasury to the railroad tracks as the big engine called “Default” comes roaring into view.

As he counts votes in anticipation of this week’s House floor action on the GOP’s slash-and-burn-and-then-cut-again budget plan, McCarthy, a California Republican, is most likely telling skittish members that the future of the GOP’s fragile majority depends on hanging together.

But, in truth, it is hard to grow passionate about the national debt.

We have all yawned as we have listened to boilerplate rhetoric about how profligate spending in Washington will be a burden “on our children and our children’s children.”

The deficit is an abstraction in the way that crime, immigration and abortion are not.

Sure, a Gallup poll in March found that 52 percent of Americans say they “worry a great deal” about the deficit. But that’s the responsible answer akin to claiming that you floss religiously after every meal and never eat sugary treats.

Do you really think that there are lights on in many households at 3 a.m. as tens of millions of Americans sit there silently brooding about budgetary shortfalls?

The only way that the deficit becomes a major campaign issue in 2024 will be if House Republican stubbornness and disarray on the debt ceiling panics global markets and triggers a recession.

In their zealous obsession with budget brinksmanship, McCarthy and his minions are deliberately downplaying another volatile issue: abortion.

CNN reported that House Republicans, for all their pro-life rhetoric, have no interest in bringing a national abortion ban to the House floor.

“Behind the scenes,” the report added, “Republicans acknowledge that the abortion ruling … hurt the GOP in the midterm elections and they’re worried about a similar backlash in 2024 if they embrace a federal ban now that they’re in power.”

A NBC News poll, released over the weekend, highlighted the continuing power of the abortion issue. The public’s views on abortion were in line with other polls: 58 percent of Americans believe it should be legal all or most of the time, while 38 percent feel that it should be mostly or totally illegal.

It was revealing was that the poll also captured the high intensity of the issue. On a 1-10 scale, 43 percent said the issue was a 10 (the highest rating) and another 18 percent said it was an eight or nine.

Somehow it is much easier to imagine sleepless nights over the availability of an abortion than insomnia triggered by the national debt.

Ten months after the high court’s Dobbs decision that ended federal protections for the procedure, the abortion issue has not lost its potency.

After the Supreme Court ruled last June, there were Republicans who predicted that the furor would die down once the anti-abortion decision had lost its novelty.

But by handing the issue to state legislatures, the high court ensured that there would be continuing controversies over abortion rights as individual states debated new restrictive laws.

Idaho just approved legislation forbidding minors from traveling outside the state to obtain an abortion. Certain to be challenged as an unconstitutional ban on the freedom to travel, the Idaho law alone will inspire ongoing national headlines.

And last week, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation banning most abortions in the state after six weeks, just about the time when many women realize that they are pregnant.

With DeSantis poised to run for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination — even after recent stumbles, he remains a formidable candidate — the Florida law will be highlighted on the campaign trail and portrayed as GOP orthodoxy.

What is hard for McCarthy and his fellow Republicans to grasp is that the political damage is already done even if the word abortion is never again mentioned by anyone in the GOP caucus.

‘Creative … jurisprudence’

And it isn’t just social conservative militants in state legislatures who are keeping the issue alive. The cavalcade of right-wing judges rushed onto the federal bench by Mitch McConnell‘s assembly line during the Donald Trump administration also deserve ample credit.

Do you think that Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk — the Trump-appointed Texas federal jurist who tried to outlaw the abortion pill mifepristone — cares about McCarthy’s messaging needs?

Judges like Kacsmaryk appear more concerned about the internal politics of the conservative Federalist Society than they are about the short-term future of the GOP’s House majority.

Even though the Supreme Court, with conservative Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito publicly dissenting, temporarily permitted sales of the abortion pill to continue, the issue is not settled. Another Supreme Court decision — and another round of abortion headlines — will probably be needed to permanently resolve the legal status of the drug.

Who knows what other creative bits of jurisprudence will emerge as new fronts in the ongoing war on abortion waged from the federal bench?

Predicting the dominant issues in the 2024 elections this far in advance is a mug’s game. But every indication suggests that few voters will be thinking about the national debt as they cast their ballots in the Nov. 5, 2024, election.

That’s the big risk for Kevin McCarthy and company as they play Russian roulette with America’s credit rating.

In an era when voting behavior is shaped by partisan habits and emotional issues like abortion, McCarthy somehow believes Republicans will be rewarded for their grandstanding over the deficit.

A more likely bet is they will continue to be punished at the polls for their party’s crusade against the right to an abortion.

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