How Trump’s greatest policy triumph could derail his bid to win back the White House

Analysis by Stephen Collinson, CNN

CNN  —  One-term presidents who fail to win a second term are usually doomed by their failures. So it would be ironic if Donald Trump’s bid is derailed by what is likely to be his most enduring policy achievement.

The former president succeeded in constructing an unassailable conservative majority on the Supreme Court, which overturned the constitutional right to an abortion two years ago and set off an extraordinary cascade of consequences that now threatens his 2024 campaign to win a non-consecutive second term.

Trump is yet to come up with a coherent policy on abortion as conservative states enthusiastically try to dismantle those rights. His equivocating shows that he knows restrictive abortion policies are deeply unpopular and could weaken his already fragile appeal to suburban and women voters. But he can’t quite disown his big win in becoming the Republican president who sent Roe v. Wade crashing down.

The ex-president’s dilemma is back in the spotlight after Florida’s Supreme Court on Monday delivered a ruling that will mean that a six-week abortion ban – one of the most restrictive in the nation – will come into force next month. Trump originally blasted the six-week cut-off as a “terrible mistake” when he saw a chance to damage then-primary rival Gov. Ron DeSantis, who signed the law. But on Tuesday, Trump declined to answer questions on the matter, promising instead to make a “statement” next week.

His punt doesn’t look like a sustainable position through November’s election.

Can the Biden campaign pin Trump down?

The Florida Supreme Court issued a separate ruling on Monday that could energize Democrats’ efforts to hold Trump to account on abortion. By clearing for this November’s ballot a proposed state constitutional amendment that would protect the right to the procedure, the court ensured that abortion will be at the center of this fall’s election in Trump’s home state.

The presumptive GOP nominee’s campaign on Tuesday tried to have it both ways, saying Trump “supports preserving life but has made clear that he supports states’ rights.” But his waffling on abortion hints at the risk it poses to him.

Last month, the ex-president made clear he was moving toward embracing a federal ban on the procedure at 15 weeks. “The number of weeks now, people are agreeing on 15, and I’m thinking in terms of that, and it’ll come out to something that’s very reasonable,” he said.

He seems to be trying to appease hardline conservatives in his party while also hoping to avoid alienating more moderate and independent voters who will be critical to deciding the election. But if Trump formally embraces a 15-week ban, President Joe Biden – who is vowing to enshrine abortion rights into law – would argue that Trump seeks national prohibitions on the procedure.

There’s every chance Trump might back away from even this level of specificity. His reticence shone through an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press” in September, well before he’d secured the GOP nomination. “What’s going to happen is you’re going to come up with a number of weeks or months,” Trump said. “You’re going to come up with a number that’s going to make people happy,” he added, conjuring a scenario that blithely ignored Americans’ deeply felt, and often irreconcilable, positions on the issue.

The ex-president has long been wary of taking a definitive stand against abortion rights. He has, for instance, warned that Republicans risk alienating potential voters with tough anti-abortion laws that lack exceptions for rape, incest or risks to the mother’s health.

This posturing may be a relic of his more liberal past as well as a sign of political calculation. He’s gotten away with it in the GOP largely because of his honored promise to evangelicals to build a conservative court majority hostile to abortion. If he can maintain a fuzzy position for the rest of the general election campaign, the ex-president may be able to ride out the controversy – even as Republicans lower down the ballot may suffer on Election Day.

But the Biden campaign is trying to pin the ex-president down, seeking to revive an issue that drives Democratic voters to the polls. It laid into Trump with relish on abortion on Tuesday, releasing a new ad that will run in swing states. It begins with video of the presumptive Republican nominee saying: “For 54 years, they were trying to get Roe v. Wade terminated, and I did it, and I’m proud to have done it.”

How Democrats are finding an opening in a generational liberal failure

Democrats are confronting their own sense of irony. While Trump’s great success on the Supreme Court has created a big general election headache for him, liberals are now viewing one of the greatest policy failures of their movement – the loss of federal abortion rights – as a political opportunity that could send Biden back to the Oval Office.

The overturning of Roe v. Wade has unleashed policy mayhem across the country. Some Republican-led legislatures have passed tough abortion bans, while more moderate states have moved to safeguard reproductive rights. State-level ballot initiatives have sought to let the voters decide. Even in red states like Kansas and Ohio, voters have sided with the abortion-rights side of those ballot questions. But some Republicans are infringing the spirit of the Supreme Court ruling – which sent the issue back to individual states – by pushing for a national ban.

The loss of Roe has also set off fierce controversies over related issues. It paved the way for lower court decisions that have, for instance, paused some IVF treatments in Alabama and set off a battle over the availability of abortion pills nationwide that reached the Supreme Court. There are real human consequences for the patchwork of policies across the country; many women now have no access to abortion or must travel hundreds of miles to out-of-state clinics. The Florida ban effectively means there is no abortion provision at all across the southeast United States.

In a way, this nationwide chaos is symptomatic of Trumpism itself – a political creed characterized mostly by a willingness to overturn precedents, assumptions, behavior and rights that have long been taken for granted, without putting anything concrete in their place. The confusion over abortion policy might be a preview, therefore, for huge upheaval that could lie in store in a second Trump term that figures to be even more disruptive than his first for the federal bureaucracy, the legal system and other parts of the political system.

But first, Trump has to win back the White House. And Democrats believe they have an issue, in abortion rights, that could thwart him – despite Biden’s own unpopularity. “As we’ve seen in election after election, protecting abortion rights is mobilizing a diverse and growing segment of voters to help buoy Democrats up and down the ballot,” Biden’s campaign manager Julie Chavez Rodriguez wrote in a memo this week.

Democratic happy talk on Florida

The prospect of abortion rights on the ballot this fall led to some optimistic talk among Democrats Tuesday that the elusive prize of Florida – once a perennial swing state, but one that Trump won in the last two elections – could be back in play in November.

Democrats are delighted since they have had considerable success in using ballot initiatives to protect abortion rights or reject further restrictions. They managed to turn the trick for example in Michigan, Montana, California and even conservative Kentucky in the midterm elections. In some places, the potency of the abortion issue ensured an invigorated Democratic turnout in statewide races. Even in reliably Republican Ohio, pro-abortion rights campaigners pulled off a remarkable win in 2023 as voters approved a measure that enshrined abortion rights in the state constitution.

Claims that Democrats can win Florida, which has trended toward Republicans, should be taken with a large pinch of salt at this stage. Trump carried the state by 1 point in 2016 and grew his margin to three points four years later. And DeSantis won a thumping reelection victory there in 2022. There’s no guarantee moreover that a voter who wants to preserve abortion rights will also choose Biden on the presidential ballot. Some Republicans will be needed to pass the measure since state constitutional amendments require a 60% threshold in Florida. And this is one state where Trump’s lack of specificity on the issue may help him.

Still, even if the early Democratic excitement doesn’t translate to the Sunshine State becoming more competitive this fall, it could force the ex-president to spend some of his limited campaign resources there, instead of using them to attack Biden in closely contested swing states.

There are also signs the ballot measure has injected new hope into the Democratic bid to unseat Florida Republican Sen. Rick Scott, who has said that if he were still governor, he would sign the six-week bill.

Scott could be far more vulnerable that Trump statewide. The Republican defeated Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson by less than half a point in 2018, and he’s never run in a presidential year. The campaign of the Democratic front-runner to take him on, former Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, called the Florida Supreme Court decisions a “game changer.” And she sent out multiple fundraising emails hailing the ballot initiative.

“This is a HUGE victory in the fight to defend reproductive freedom — but it’s just the beginning. Now, we need to get this initiative across the finish line, defeat Rick Scott at the ballot box, and codify abortion rights,” she said in one of the emails.

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