You may not be ready to hear this, but there’s a plausible scenario in which the reversal of Roe v. Wade results in progressive victories on a variety of fronts. 

Here’s how that scenario could play out. 

Right now Democrats are looking at a slaughter in the fall. Republicans have a built-in advantage because it’s the midterms where the party in power almost always loses seats in Congress. It gets worse when the sitting president is unpopular, which Joe Biden is at the moment. And it will get even worse when on virtually every issue that is important to the public — the economy, inflation, crime, immigration — the Republicans have an advantage in the polls. 

Now add abortion into the mix and it’s possible that the political earth tilts in another direction. This is an issue on which Democrats have the upper hand with a consistent 60-70 percent of Americans (depending on how the question is asked) favoring keeping abortions legal. 

Now, progressive voters, who often sit out midterms anyway and who are dispirited with the failure of Build Back Better and voting rights legislation, are suddenly motivated like never before. They show up in droves. Meanwhile, pro-choice suburban voters who have never fully embraced the new party of Donald Trump anyway have reason to vote for a Democrat. 

The upshot: Democrats maintain their House majority and add seats in the Senate, Gov. Tony Evers is reelected, southwest Wisconsin’s 3rd Congressional District remains in Democratic hands and Democrats pick up a few seats in the Legislature. 

Now with enough votes in the Senate to end or reform the filibuster, Democrats go on not just to codify Roe in law but to also finally pass Build Back Better, voting rights (which would outlaw extreme partisan gerrymandering, among other things), and other progressive legislation. 

Tragedy spurs progress. 

I am not saying this is likely to happen; just that it becomes possible. Democratic prospects which were dim before now are brighter. But in order for things to really get bright for progressive causes two things need to happen. 

First, the abortion issue has to become a deciding factor for a critical mass of voters. It’s not clear yet how many voters will be motivated by this issue. Will nominally pro-choice voters cast their votes on other issues that are more important to them, like the economy? Will anti-abortion voters be more motivated, as a whole, to vote than those who support abortion rights? It’s one thing to have a strong majority in favor of your position, but the crucial question is about intensity. For example, an overwhelming majority of Americans supports some form of gun control and, yet, nothing happens because virtually everyone who votes solely on that issue is against any kind of gun regulation. Same thing applies here. 

The second big question is how Democrats and abortion rights advocates present their side. Public opinion on this is nuanced. To quote a recent Pew Research report: “Though abortion is a divisive issue, more than half of U.S. adults take a non-absolutist position, saying that in most — but not all — cases, abortion should be legal (34 percent) or illegal (26 percent). Fewer take the position that in all cases abortion should be either legal (25 percent) or illegal (13 percent).” (My emphasis added.)

And here’s New York Times political analyst Nate Cohn from a piece posted this past weekend: “The public’s views on abortion are notoriously hard to measure, with large segments of the public often seeming to offer muddled or inconsistent answers. Polls consistently show that around two-thirds of Americans support the court’s decision in Roe v. Wade and oppose overturning it. Yet just as many Americans say they support banning abortion in the second trimester, a step barred by Roe. And a more modest majority — usually around 55 percent in broader sets of data — supports legal abortion in most or all cases, while people split almost evenly over whether they consider themselves “pro-choice” or “pro-life.”

All of which is to say that Bill Clinton’s formulation makes the most sense to me. Clinton said that abortion should be, “safe, legal and rare.” It’s that last word, “rare,” that’s crucial because it acknowledges the misgivings even many pro-choice Americans have about it. Cinton’s phrase reaches across the spectrum of pro-choice voters and isolates absolutist abortion opponents into their relatively small minority. 

In this context what happened early Sunday at the offices of Wisconsin Family Action in Madison was incredibly stupid. Somebody decided it would be a good idea to break, enter and trash the place and then commit arson. It was criminal and morally wrong, of course. But it was also exactly the kind of thing that will quickly close the opening that has been created by the Roe leak and squander an advantage that could turn a setback into a major advance. Democratic officials from Evers to Attorney General Josh Kaul to Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway were right to come down hard on this. 

Reversing Roe, if it happens, will be a tragedy on multiple levels. But, ironically, it could create a political opportunity that could not only reestablish the right to full reproductive rights but make progress on a host of other issues. That won’t happen by itself. Democrats and choice advocates need to be smart about how they move forward between now and November. 

Dave Cieslewicz is a Madison- and Upper Peninsula-based writer who served as mayor of Madison from 2003 to 2011. You can read more of his work at Yellow Stripes & Dead Armadillos. He’s the author of Light Blue: How center-left moderates can build an enduring Democratic majority.


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