Sometimes determinative events in politics aren’t about reaching a goal so much as overreaching in pursuit of one. That happened with Bill Clinton’s first-term attempt to pass a national health-care plan after winning only 43 percent of the vote in a three-way race. It happened with George W. Bush’s push to privatize some of Social Security after narrowly winning a second term, an effort that squandered political capital to no effect.
Failure born of overreach beset Donald Trump when he tried to repeal the Affordable Care Act without ever having produced his oft-promised plan to provide much better, much less expensive health care, handing the opposition a potent weapon. It happened with Joe Biden, who proposed his sweeping Build Back Better plan without first securing the support of all 50 of the Senate’s Democratic caucus members, even though every one of them was needed for passage. That overreach left Biden’s climate and health care agenda languishing for months, though a new Senate agreement on a smaller package now seems poised to pass.
And as Tuesday’s strong affirmation of abortion rights in Kansas suggests, the overreach curse may be settling on Washington Republicans — and in a highly unusual way.
It had long been the goal of conservatives to reverse Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that established a constitutional right to abortion. After the political theft of Antonin Scalia’s former seat, the retirement of Anthony Kennedy, and the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Donald Trump was able to set the stage by appointing three doctrinaire conservatives. Notwithstanding the confirmation-process dissembling of two of that troika, they soon joined with the court’s other precedent-pshawing conservatives to overturn Roe. In doing so, they spurned an effort by Chief Justice John Roberts to broaden the majority by retaining abortion rights but restricting them to 15 weeks, a reduction mainstream America might well have accepted.
Instead, their abrupt and high-handed abrogation of a right that had existed for almost half a century has created a sharp national backlash. On Tuesday, the overwhelming vote by Kansans to protect a constitutional right to abortion showed just how galvanizing that reaction can be.
How a politician or a party reacts to an overreach often determines their fortunes going forward. If Senator Kyrsten Sinema, Democrat of Arizona, can follow the lead of Senator Joe Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia, in finally getting to yes — and if progressives can show some political pragmatism — the Democrats will rack up big climate and health-care accomplishments, strengthening their midterm hand. Further, the Kansas vote on abortion rights suggests that they can find political traction by running on their support for abortion rights – and voters’ fear of what Republicans will do on that issue if they win control of Congress. Add to that worries about what the high court’s conservative activists might do on right-to-privacy protections for gay marriage, same-sex relations, and access to contraception.
For their part, Republicans are hoping that an unpopular president, high inflation, and pervasive economic pessimism — a lugubriousness that prevails despite very low unemployment — will carry them to an epic victory, even as they duck, dodge, or deflect on abortion, usually by declaring it’s a matter that should be left to the states.
One school of thought, well-explored in the 2016 book “Democracy for Realists” by Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels, holds that what’s really determinative in national elections is the state of the economy, and more specifically, its effect on personal income, in the six months or so before voters go to the polls.
If so, with inflation biting away at buying power, Republicans remain in good shape to take the House. The clear history of gains by the non-presidential party certainly bolsters the argument that their House prospects are good.
This, however, is a year unlike any in recent memory. Yes, it takes large concerns to break through the vote-your-discontent dynamic of usually-lower-turnout midterms. And yes, the midterms won’t be a single-issue vote, as was the case in Kansas.
But as the Sunflower State showed, abortion rights qualify as just such an issue. Both the size of the turnout and the magnitude of the victory underscore its potency as a voter-motivator.
That is not to predict a Democratic victory. Rather, it is to say that with the Senate at best a jump ball for the GOP, the battle for the House is now shaping up to be much closer than expected just a few months ago — and that it’s not just Democrats who should be nervous.
Republican confidence notwithstanding, as history shows, you don’t always get what you overreach for.