Is This Trump’s World Now? Four New York Times Writers on the Roe Leak and Vance’s Big Win

From a New York Times Round Table conversation headlined “Is This Trump’s World Now? Four Opinion Writers on the Roe Leak and Vance’s Big Win”:

During a seismic week in American politics, one clear winner has emerged: former President Donald Trump. The three Supreme Court justices he nominated appear poised to deliver a long-sought victory to the right by overturning Roe v. Wade, after a draft of the anticipated Dobbs decision was leaked Monday evening. The next day, the “Hillbilly Elegy” author J.D. Vance won his race in the Republican Senate primary in Ohio after Mr. Trump’s endorsement resuscitated his sluggish campaign. What do the events of this week mean for both parties as they look ahead to the midterm elections? The Times Opinion writers Jane Coaston, Michelle Cottle and Ross Douthat discuss what this moment means for the U.S. political landscape with the Times Opinion podcast host Lulu Garcia-Navarro.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro: Before we get to the Ohio race, I think we really need to understand this leaked opinion and how it sets the stage for red states and red races.

I think what’s been stunning to me is how surprised everyone is that this Supreme Court — with five conservative members who seem to have been expressly picked to deliver the end of Roe — seems ready to effectively end abortion access for millions of women.

Obviously the leaked opinion by Justice Samuel Alito, published by Politico, is not a final draft. No official court ruling has come out. But it seems to me that far from ending the debate over abortion, this might supercharge it. What do you think? Do you think it’s going to be the galvanizing issue liberals hope it will be?

Ross Douthat: First, I just want to stress that this is a leak of a draft opinion. Including on abortion, Supreme Court decisions have changed between the initial draft and the final ruling.

However, I agree that it was always quite likely that you would get this kind of ruling from a conservative Supreme Court, and its effects are going to be the return of real abortion politics for the first time in decades. That will have some kind of supercharging effect just inevitably. Because if Roe falls, you immediately have laws on the books in various states that restrict abortion or make it illegal that will create debates within those states.

But I think the reality is because we haven’t had these kinds of debates in so long, they are — even by the standards of our unpredictable politics — really hard to predict. I personally have been surprised, in a way, at how stable Texas politics has been since the Supreme Court allowed Texas effectively to restrict abortion after six weeks.

My general assumption has been that there would be a substantial backlash and a big political opportunity for Democrats. But the evidence from state politics so far doesn’t prove that that’s real. To some extent, we’re just going to have to see what happens without having any recent analogies to tell us what’s likely to take place.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro: I want to play this tape of Senator Elizabeth Warren, speaking about the possible end of Roe at a rally here in Washington:

I am angry because we have reached the combination of what Republicans have been fighting for, angling for, for decades now. And we are going to fight back.

Speaking of opportunities for Democrats, as Ross has pointed out and as Senator Elizabeth Warren there says, this has been decades in the making. But fight back how? Options seem limited right now.

Michelle Cottle: It looks like this is going to wind up being an issue that gets fought in the states for a while. There is legislation floating around Capitol Hill, but what the Democrats have passed in the House of Representatives is not going anywhere. Senators Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski have a pared-down codification of Roe, but that’s unlikely to go anywhere right now. It’s one of these things that I think at the federal level is just going to flummox people.

Democrats are hoping that this will give them a boost in the midterms come November, but I don’t expect it to have a huge impact this time around. I think it could, though, going forward.

The place where you might see it in November would be in the primaries, where Representative Henry Cuellar, who is a pro-life Democrat on the Texas border, is in a fight with a pro-choice challenger. Could this tilt that race just enough for Cuellar to lose and have a different Democrat going into the generals? I don’t know, but I don’t expect it to have a huge impact on the midterms in November.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro: We know from our history in this country and what we see in other places where there isn’t abortion access, that women who don’t have abortion access will resort to illegal abortions, putting their lives at risk.

It strikes me that all of this is happening while we have a Democratic president, a Democratic Senate and a Democratic House. Is there going to be a feeling that Democrats haven’t only fumbled, they’ve also roundly been beaten, and it could lead to a decline in support from their base? It could have the opposite effect of galvanizing them.

Jane Coaston: It’s a complicated issue. A Gallup poll from 2021 found that the poorest Americans, who are most likely to suffer from a lack of access to abortion, are also more likely to believe that abortion is morally wrong.

It’s worth remembering that this has been the carrot waved in front of social conservatives for 50 years. And now you’re hearing from a lot of conservatives that actually nothing will change. A conservative writer, Erick Erickson, said yesterday that this isn’t a big deal because nothing will change. They didn’t call them “Students for a 12-week abortion ban.” They didn’t call it “March for a 15-Week Abortion Ban.”

This is going to be complicated for a lot of people, especially because they will see that there’ll be a clear difference between states like Connecticut and Colorado that have already provided abortion protections and Republican states that attempt to have an abortion ban, whether it will be a Texas-like system in which you are asking people to essentially inform on others, or just a straight-up ban.

Voters have very conflicted views on abortion, but generally, they support people having some access to abortion.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro: I’m going to pick up on something you said. It is true that something like 80 percent of Americans think there should be some access to abortion. What that access should look like is unclear. But if Roe is overturned, that means that states will have the right to legislate on abortion access.

Red states already have “trigger” laws in place that will immediately curtail abortion access for their residents if that happens. Some states are going to be doing one thing and other states are going to be doing a different thing. What does that mean for the unity of this country, where some citizens will have some rights and others won’t?

Ross Douthat: I’m sorry to keep pleading agnosticism, but I don’t think we know. If you go back to the period before Roe was decided, in the late ’60s and early ’70s, this was basically the system that we were heading toward.

There had been some liberalization of abortion laws in a number of states. There was a nascent pro-life movement that had pushed back against that and had halted and reversed that trend in other states. At that point, if you were looking at the landscape, you would have said, Well, this is sort of the federalist solution, right? This is the way the American system is set up to negotiate some deeply polarizing social issues.

Now, that was also a landscape in which abortion had not been nationalized by the Supreme Court and had not then become a key driver of polarization between the parties. Back in the 1970s, you had lots of pro-choice Republicans and you had lots of pro-life Democrats, including Joseph Robinette Biden, now the pro-choice president of the United States.

You had a landscape where you could imagine abortion policy being federalized, in the sense of being different from state to state, and also the two political parties not dividing over it.

The fact that now the parties have divided over it so completely makes me suspect that the federalist strategy will be somewhat unstable and you will have constant pressure to have a national abortion policy from both sides, which will then implicate debates over the filibuster and everything else.

The flip side of that is that lots of national Republican politicians have never been enthusiastic about talking about abortion, let alone legislating on it. A lot will depend on what happens in some of the bigger red states like Florida and Texas. Does the pro-life movement consider that an at least temporary victory?

Or is that politically unstable? Is there a big backlash? Democrats have assumed that Texas is supposed to trend blue for a long time. So in theory an overreaching abortion ban in Texas could provoke the kind of backlash that Democrats have been looking for.

Jane Coaston: It’s worth noting here that we don’t know what this will look like. We’ve seen that Senate Republicans passed around a memo on potential talking points and some of them include things like saying, We don’t want to put doctors in jail. We would never take away anyone’s contraception or health care. But you are hearing from other Republicans who are saying, for example, We do want to go after Griswold.

Ross Douthat: Wait a minute. Which Republicans — outside of some traditionalist Catholic blog or something — are saying that they want to pass a law banning contraception?

Jane Coaston: Senator Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee. She brought up Griswold as being constitutionally unsound.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro: Griswold v. Connecticut, of course, is the case where the Supreme Court ruled that marital privacy protects couples against state restrictions on contraception.

Jane Coaston: My point is that when you have something that you’ve been fighting over for 50 years, there are lots of tangential pieces that people have been arguing about. For instance, telemedicine and access to abortion-causing medications. And there are Catholics who argue that some forms of birth control are themselves abortion-causing medications.

Michelle Cottle: We have no idea how this is going to play out, even with just the abortion restrictions. You were asking about rights and different rights for people in different states. I mean, the reality is there are some states where it’s virtually impossible already to get an abortion — where there’s one abortion clinic for the entire state. If you’re talking about surgical abortions, that has already become a matter of where you live.

An interesting thing that we’re going to watch play out here — and it’s going to get really sticky, really fast — are medication abortions. Are you going to have a black market? How are states going to determine who’s getting what? When there are certain rules in place that allow for medication abortions, which now are upward of 50 percent of abortions. That’s one thing. But if you have states that have just outlawed them, it starts to get really complicated. Who are you going after? How are you going to enforce this? What happens if somebody crosses state lines to get these meds?

We have no idea what the future landscape will look like, much less one step down the road with abortifacients or anything like that.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro: What we have seen in other countries that restrict abortion is that women have illegal abortions and get their health put at risk. It’s not that the numbers of abortions necessarily go down. It’s that they may not be as safe.

When you’ve had 50 years of abortion access, as you’ve had in the United States, if you take away those rights, as will happen to women in many red states, that is going to have serious repercussions. I don’t think that this will be the end of it. And I think it’s naïve to think that it will.

Ross Douthat: I have to argue with you very briefly. There is a frequent pro-choice argument along the lines of: “Abortion restrictions don’t reduce abortion rates. They just lead to more illegal abortions.”

We have a lot of evidence from the developed world — from the United States and Western Europe — that that is not true: that rich nations or states that have restrictions on abortions have fewer abortions. The abortion rate is higher in Scandinavia, which has more liberal abortion laws, than it is in Germany, which has more restrictive abortion laws in general.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro: Rich people will be able to get abortions, sure. But the disadvantaged will not.

Ross Douthat: That’s not what I’m saying. I’m including the poor people within those rich countries.

Jane Coaston: That’s a point worth making, as is the point that abortion rates in the United States have actually been going down. They reached a high, I believe, in the early 1980s.

Ross Douthat: Yes.

Jane Coaston: Each year we keep hitting record lows in the number of abortions.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro: Because we have sex education and contraception.

Ross Douthat: That’s not what’s driving it.

Jane Coaston: Also, fewer people are having sex in general — yay!

Ross Douthat: That’s more of what’s driving it. The reason that the pro-life side supports restrictions on abortion is that there is a lot of evidence that restrictions reduce abortion rates. This is where I completely agree that the question of who is getting prosecuted, what is done with state power, makes a really big difference.

But right now, you have states in the U.S. and countries around the world, including places like Chile, that have had restrictive abortion laws that have very low maternal mortality rates and very good records on women’s health. It is possible to restrict abortion without having the massive maternal mortality nightmare that gets brought up. It just requires public spending and sensible policymaking.

Michelle Cottle: Which has no bearing on this society.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro: Indeed. If the pandemic showed us anything.

Ross Douthat: Well, this is the United States of America.

Jane Coaston: There have been conversations among social conservatives about a post-Roe environment. All of them seem to recognize that it would require spending choices that Republicans have historically not wanted to make. Expanding access to WIC, for example.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro: WIC, the federal nutrition program that supports women, infants and children.

Jane Coaston: Yeah. Expanding access to maternal care, because again, maternal mortality risks, especially around African American women, are very bad in the United States.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro: As much as I’ve enjoyed this debate, we have something else to argue about, which is Trump and the Ohio race on Tuesday. Here is the victorious J.D. Vance after he won the Republican primary:

Thanks to the president for everything, for endorsing me. And I got to say, a lot of the fake news media out there, and there are some good ones in the back there, there’s some bad ones, too, let’s be honest, but they wanted to write a story that this campaign would be the death of Donald Trump’s “America First” agenda. Ladies and gentlemen, it ain’t the death of the “America First” agenda.

I think this story connects to our first conversation because we were talking about abortion, one of the original culture war issues. And here we have, with Vance victorious, someone who’s embodying Trump and his “America First” agenda.

Michelle, you were just outside Cincinnati with J.D. Vance on the campaign trail, and with Donald Trump Jr. What stood out to you the most about the campaigning you saw?

Michelle Cottle: The Vance clip you played basically captures the whole thing. The minute he got the nod from Trump, this race didn’t have anything to do with J.D. Vance or any of the other candidates. It became a referendum on Trump and Trump’s king-making ability.

I watched Don Jr. appear at these events, and it was all about how Vance was the only Trump-endorsed candidate in this race. It was all about Trump, which is a testament to how far J.D. Vance has bent over to smooch Donald Trump’s backside, which is what a lot of the party has done — in fact, what most of the party has done. But it is still galling to watch.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro: Jane, you are from Ohio.

Jane Coaston: Cincinnati, stand up!

Lulu Garcia-Navarro: What does what Michelle is saying tell you about not only your home state but the direction of the G.O.P.?

Jane Coaston: I talked to J.D. Vance back in 2016 when he published “Hillbilly Elegy,” and he told me that white working-class voters were frustrated and hungry for political leadership and that a lot of “political elites” hadn’t picked that up. He has since taken on the mantle of being a jerk. He has taken on talking about cat ladies and arguing about Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, because you have to sound like Trump in order for Trump to see you as being part of him.

There is an idea that this is a part of Ohio, north of Cincinnati, where, in Vance’s view, things used to be better and now they are bad. And that it is the responsibility of someone — Vance or somebody else — to fix it, to make things better. And there is an idea that this was the fault of globalization or NAFTA or big business or something like that. And that the people who were like Vance used to be better. And now they aren’t better, but it’s not their fault.

There are people who wax rhapsodic about working-class jobs, many of whom have never actually worked. You hear this when people talk about manufacturing jobs. My grandpa worked in a copper mill. It sucked and he died at 48. There’s this idea, this halcyon concept of an Ohio that once was. A Cincinnati that used to be.

Michelle Cottle: This is what the Trump appeal was in general, the idea that these people had been left behind. This is why he played well in Pennsylvania. That is not an unusual concept. The problem with Trumpism is they’ve taken this kind of populist impulse and turned it into: “It’s the immigrants’ fault. It’s the Black people’s fault.” They’re blaming it on somebody else.

Jane Coaston: It’s “the other.”

Michelle Cottle: Yeah, they’re blaming it on China, too. It’s “the other.”

Jane Coaston: It’s me, essentially. I did it. [LAUGHS]

Michelle Cottle: At these rallies you don’t hear about abortion. You hear about how immigrants have turned central Ohio into the child trafficking capital of the world. It’s completely shamelessly, xenophobic.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro: Ross, you have made no mystery of your distaste for Trump’s style and its impact on the tenor of the G.O.P. What do you make of Vance’s win and what it signals about the post-Trump presidency era of the Republican Party?

Ross Douthat: I should say, just as a preface, that I know J.D. Vance and so I’m trying to offer detached analysis. But the listeners should know that I do in fact know him.

Jane’s narrative is broadly right: There’s a basic continuity in populous worldview between the Vance who was extremely critical of Trump, in ways that I still agree with, and the Vance who won his endorsement.

But there is a difference, too. “Hillbilly Elegy” is more about an internal pathology in white working-class America than it is about the elite policy mistakes that hollowed out American industry. So there’s been some shift in emphasis, but the basic narrative of elite betrayal of the American heartland — I don’t think that’s something that Vance has flip-flopped on.

Even when he was damning Trump in the past, the argument was always, Trump is tapping into real and legitimate grievances, but he is essentially the political opioid of these communities that have been hit so hard by fentanyl.

That’s the background. Then Vance ran a campaign in which — unlike Josh Mandel, his big rival — he spent less time personally appealing for Trump’s support and more time in the MAGA-extended universe of Steve Bannon’s show, Tucker Carlson’s show, various podcasts and so on that are all extremely right-wing and extremely Trumpy.

Politico had a really good piece about how the Trump endorsementcame about. Not surprisingly, Trump didn’t respond well to Mandel and others begging for his endorsement, and he seems to have decided to endorse Vance because he watched the debates and thought that Vance looked the best on TV, which, as we know, is the most important thing for anything connected to Trump. That, and he saw Vance play golf and liked his swing. The entire future history of American politics may turn on whether Trump likes a Senate candidate’s golf swing.

Jane Coaston: Ohio’s political winds have shifted significantly. I do think it will be interesting to see how Vance attempts to get at a broader audience, if he even attempts to. That is going to be a bigger audience, and one accustomed to Ohio Republicans like Rob Portman or Steve Chabot, who are definitely more Ohioan. We’re Midwesterners! We tamp down our feelings with lasagna. But that’s not what Vance does. His kind of online anger and online ire — I am curious to see how that plays out when he’s having to make an appeal to, well, not my parents, but people like my parents.

Michelle Cottle: That’s one of the problems we’re looking at with America in a foul mood, though, right? Whether you think it’s because of the pandemic or inflation or whatever, Americans are sour, and when you are sour, you are spoiling for a fight and you are looking for someone to come and tell you: “You are right to be angry. This is not your fault. You have been taken advantage of, and I’m going to fix it for you.” Those are the headwinds that the Democrats are looking at.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro: I’m going to wrap this up by asking for predictions, which I know everyone loves to do. This is mine: If politicians like J.D. Vance are elected into office in the fall, on the G.O.P. side, we’re going to have more of the strong culture-war G.O.P. presidential nominees in 2024, probably Trump or Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who are drawn to these divisive issues. The Democrats have had trouble countering those narratives.

What do you see coming down the line, in terms of our political landscape and what it might portend?

Michelle Cottle: Historical trends made it hard for the Democrats not to lose ground in this midterm. They have not had a break with the pandemic or inflation or anything like that. I think they’re going to have a rough midterm, and then going into 2024, if for some reason Trump does not run, I think DeSantis immediately moves to the head of line and we’re looking at somebody like that from the Republican side. There’s no real indication that the Republicans want to move away from Trumpism in the near future.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro: Ross? Trump is king?

Ross Douthat: There’s no indication at all. For Republican voters in Ohio, the fundamental choice was between Josh Mandel, who was basically the Trump attitude but with the pre-Trump mix of economic policies — that’s why Mandel was endorsed by the Club for Growth and they poured all this money into defeating Vance — or Vance, who was channeling the Trump attitude, but with policies on trade and immigration and foreign policy that were much more like the shift that Trump brought.

Michelle Cottle: They could have gone with Matt Dolan, who was running and who came in a tight third behind Mandel.

Ross Douthat: Right. But that suggests that it’s not just the Trump attitude. There is a constituency for Trump’s issues in the G.O.P. that remains very powerful.

Fundamentally, the Democrats’ problems are about inflation and the post-Covid recovery turning into an inflationary spiral that has real wages going down, even as people are making more money on paper. That’s the biggest problem.

With the culture war stuff, those battles are a cycle of overreach and backlash. What we’re living through right now, especially with the critical race theory debates and gender in schools debates, is a backlash against the sweeping leftward movement that we saw late in the Trump era, where there was a transformation of elite institutions, particularly in the summer of 2020, along more dramatically progressive lines. The backlash to that was always going to have a certain amount of political running room.

The question is — whether it’s abortion or transgender issues or anything else — where does that backlash end up overreaching in its turn? Or do Republicans have room to have a backlash and still win because Democrats haven’t found a good way to get back to the center themselves?

Lulu Garcia-Navarro: Jane, I’m going to leave the last word to you.

Jane Coaston: I’m so interested in how Republicans are using this moment to respond to cultural trends with politics. At a certain point you just can’t make everything you don’t like illegal. If you do, people will respond poorly because legally, that’s questionable. That’s morally questionable, too.

A politics that’s “I just don’t want anyone to do something I don’t like” is going to make people mad.

I’m not sure what’s going to happen in the midterms, but these trends of overreach speak to an idea. If Republicans have control of the Supreme Court or the House and Senate, will they still be thinking: “Why are people not more like us? Why are people not doing what we want?” And liberals can see that Democrats right now have perceived control and are saying: “Why can’t we do anything? We have nothing!” Both sides screaming at each other, “You have everything and we have nothing.”

That’s a really bad state for our politics to be in, because it means that no one takes any responsibility for anything. That’s what makes me worried.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro is a Times Opinion podcast host. Jane Coaston is the host of “The Argument” podcast. Michelle Cottle is a member of the editorial board. Ross Douthat is a Times columnist.

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