Politics / August 1, 2023

Ron DeSantis’s Abortion No Man’s Land

The Florida conservative signed a six-week ban in his state but is clashing with anti-abortion leaders who want a national ban, too.

Joan Walsh
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis gives remarks at the Heritage Foundation’s 50th Anniversary Leadership Summit at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center on April 21, 2023, in National Harbor, Md. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images) (Photo by Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images)

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis can’t get it right on abortion.

He repelled moderates by signing an unpopular six-week abortion ban in April, at almost 11 pm and with little hoopla, which when it takes effect will cut off abortion access for many who have come to rely on his state, one of the few with legal abortion access left in the South. But more recently DeSantis told Megyn Kelly that he opposes federal legislation imposing a national abortion ban, insisting that the matter is best left to the states. He has also noted that Congress doesn’t have the votes to pass the policy right now, and he is “running on doing things that I know I can accomplish.”

With that stance, he’s picked a fight with the powerful Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, which is pushing hard for all the Republican Party’s 2024 primary candidates to back a national ban. “Gov. DeSantis’s dismissal of this task is unacceptable to pro-life voters,” SBA President Marjorie Dannenfelser told the Associated Press. “There are many pressing legislative issues for which Congress does not have the votes at the moment, but that is not a reason for a strong leader to back away from the fight.” She added: “This is where presidential leadership matters most.”

Donald Trump also got into trouble with SBA earlier this year. Though in 2021 the group called Trump “the most pro-life president in the nation’s history,” by April of this year it was insisting that his repeated calls to leave the decision to the states was a “morally indefensible position for a self-proclaimed pro-life presidential candidate.” SBA pledged not to support anyone “who refuses to embrace at a minimum a 15-week national standard.” That sounded like trouble in paradise.

Less than a month later, of course, they’d patched things up, though it wasn’t clear exactly how. Leaders announced that they’d had a “terrific” meeting with Trump and Senator Lindsey Graham, the sponsor of a federal 15-week abortion ban. SBA praised Trump’s “opposition to the extreme Democratic position of abortion on demand, up until the moment of birth” (remember, no Democrat officials support that) and “reiterated that any federal legislation protecting these children would need to include the exceptions for life of the mother and in cases of rape and incest.” Notably, the statement didn’t mention Trump’s apparent continued opposition to a national ban.

“We’ll get something done where everyone is going to be very satisfied,” Trump promised. “I think we’ll get it done on some level, it could be on different levels, but we’re going to get it done. I know the issue very well. I think I know the issue better than most, and we will get that taken care of.” That was good enough for SBA, although The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake called it “pretty thin gruel” at the time.

Will DeSantis be allowed to get back into SBA’s good graces with a “pretty thin gruel” statement of intent, like Trump did? Somehow I don’t think so.

If we’ve learned one thing about the second-place (so far) Republican presidential wannabe, it’s that he has a real way with people—a real way to turn them off. This morning’s papers carried news of a conversation he had with a 15-year-old struggling with depressive disorder, who would nonetheless like to have a military career. At 15, she noted, she couldn’t yet vote, and DeSantis quipped: “It’s never stopped the other party from not letting you vote.” I think he meant to say “letting you vote,” since the right’s line is that Democrats let everyone vote, even illegally. Either way, it was a touching moment of empathy between a political leader and a teen looking for solace. Not.

Part of the problem is DeSantis’s core argument for becoming president is that he alone is responsible for the Florida miracle (or nightmare, depending on your politics). He’s the one who imposed the blinkered restrictions on teaching LGBTQ material, on honest classroom conversation about race and racism, on companies promoting diversity and inclusion in the workplace, on gender-affirming care for teens. He alone gets to decide that Florida must suffer under a six-week abortion ban, before most people know they are pregnant. Mere mortals like the SBA ladies deserve nothing to say about what goes on in his state.

“He does not kowtow to DC interest groups,” spokesperson Bryan Griffin told Politico. “This unjustified attack on him is another example of the DC political games that have seen conservatives falter in Washington while Governor DeSantis has produced unmatched conservative victories in Florida.”

Although Trump can be a brawler, he doesn’t pick small, unnecessary fights; DeSantis can’t help himself. It will likely only get worse as the heat on the candidate to reset his flailing campaign starts to feel like the ocean water in Miami.

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Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh, a national affairs correspondent for The Nation, is a coproducer of The Sit-In: Harry Belafonte Hosts The Tonight Show and the author of What’s the Matter With White People? Finding Our Way in the Next America. Her new book (with Nick Hanauer and Donald Cohen) is Corporate Bullsh*t: Exposing the Lies and Half-Truths That Protect Profit, Power and Wealth In America.

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