Yesterday Rand Paul earned plaudits from conservatives for turning a question on abortion back on Democrats and putting them on the defensive. It’s long been the case that Democratic Party leaders hold fringe opinions on abortion, yet are rarely if ever asked about it by a compliant media. Not only did Paul not slip up on the question (the way candidates have in the past). He even forced an admission by DNC chief Debbie Wasserman Schultz that leading Democrats believe there should be no limits on abortion. But even more important are two other, significant ways Paul’s accomplishment could change the 2016 race.
To recap, here’s the exchange yesterday, from Bloomberg’s Dave Weigel:
“Should there be any exemptions or not?” asked NH1 reporter Paul Steinhauser, citing the DNC attack.
“What’s the DNC say?” asked Paul. That landed like a joke—the room holding the press conference also contained some Paul supporters waiting for photos—but he was serious.
“Here’s the deal—we always seen to have the debate waaaaay over here on what are the exact details of exemptions, or when it starts,” said Paul, waving his hands to the left. “Why don’t we ask the DNC: Is it okay to kill a seven-pound baby in the uterus? You go back and you ask Debbie Wasserman Schultz if she’s OK with killing a seven-pound baby that is not born yet. Ask her when life begins, and you ask Debbie when it’s okay to protect life. When you get an answer from Debbie, get back to me.”
“Here’s an answer,” said Schultz. “I support letting women and their doctors make this decision without government getting involved. Period. End of story. Now your turn, Senator Paul. We know you want to allow government officials like yourself to make this decision for women — but do you stand by your opposition to any exceptions, even when it comes to rape, incest, or life of the mother? Or do we just have different definitions of ‘personal liberty’? And I’d appreciate it if you could respond without ’shushing’ me.”
Schultz’s response highlights the two key aspects of this as it relates to the presidential election.
The first is that Paul put Schultz on the defensive because Republicans with national aspirations on the campaign trail almost never talk about abortion like this. The honesty was bracing, but Schultz was also unprepared for it. Yet this isn’t, first and foremost, an issue for the Democrats, because we’re so far from the general election. Instead, it’s a challenge to Paul’s fellow Republicans.
The Todd Akin affair has spooked Republicans even more than they’d normally be about defending the right to life. But if Paul is going to talk like this–as well he should–and get conservative applause for it–again, as well he should–then it’s going to put pressure on his fellow candidates too. Paul does not want to avoid the debate over abortion. On the contrary, he wants to have a full and honest debate about it. Over the long term, that’s won’t be good for Democrats like Schultz, whose position on abortion is horrifying–unless, of course, the Republicans trip over their words and faceplant on the question at some point, the way Akin and others have.
But for the near future, other Republican candidates are not going to be able to ignore the question either, not from Paul and not from the media who know they can get the candidates talking about it now. It will come up in debates, and it will come up on the campaign trail. And Paul has raised the stakes by offering an honest and full-throated defense of the unborn. Will others follow suit? How will Ted Cruz, who is openly aiming for the evangelical vote, handle the question?
The other reason it has implications for the race is that this is part and parcel of Paul’s response to the “war on women” lie. Remember, Paul last caused a stir on this when he expressed his confusion at being accused of waging a war on women by the same people who still want the Clintons to lead their party. He even called Bill Clinton–accurately–a sexual predator.
The abortion debate is central to the Democrats’ war on women narrative. And they’re already trying to paint Paul as hostile to women. As the Blaze points out:
Democrats on Wednesday indicated that their emerging strategy for fighting Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) as he seeks the GOP presidential nomination is to say he has a problem with women.
Paul on Wednesday got into a tense back and forth with a female anchor from NBC in which he accused her of editorializing about his views instead of simply asking about his views. “Why don’t we let me explain instead of you talking over me, okay?” he said.
Paul’s habit of getting defensive in interviews may hurt him on the campaign trail, since he’s going up against happy warriors like Scott Walker and the seemingly unflappable Ted Cruz. It’s a long campaign, and Paul’s going to have to have the patience for it.
But he’s not anti-woman. And in fact, it’s a bit condescending of Democrats toward women to treat them as too fragile for the heat of the political debate. But that won’t stop Democrats from trying.
Paul’s answer on abortion is of a piece with his strategy to combat the war on women nonsense. He pushes back every time, and has become adept at turning the accusations back on Democrats. Considering how important the war on women lie is to Democrats’ campaign strategy, it will be interesting to see how Paul’s approach will play on a national level over time, and whether it will encourage other Republicans to turn the questions back on Democrats as well.
The best-case scenario for how this turns out for Paul is that he finally ends the bogus war on women while forcing voters to contemplate the appalling implications of Democrats’ extreme stance on abortion. The worst-case scenario is that his quick temper gets him into trouble and he burns out. A middle ground is that he backs off his current strategy in order to prevent the second scenario, but this would mean also retreating somewhat rhetorically.
The result may well determine how both parties talk about abortion going forward. Some will cheer Paul and some won’t, but all will likely be paying close attention.