Editor’s Note: Terry Schilling is the executive director at American Principles Project, a conservative nonprofit think tank. Follow him on Twitter @Schilling1776. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely his. View more opinion at CNN.
On Friday, Donald Trump became the first President to speak in person at the March for Life in Washington. This is a really big deal.
Every year, hundreds of thousands of pro-life demonstrators come together in our nation’s capital to commemorate the anniversary of the Supreme Court’s wrongly decided Roe v. Wade decision and demand political action that would protect the right to life for the unborn. Now in its 47th year, the march has become the premier event of the pro-life movement.
Trump’s historic appearance was a boon for marchers, as it helped draw increased attention to the event and highlight the pro-life movement’s considerable political success in recent years. It also presents an enormous opportunity for him to reach the many Americans who are on the fence about abortion by drawing a contrast with the extreme positions of his 2020 Democrat opponents.
While abortion rights proponents love to cite polling data showing that the vast majority of Americans support Roe v. Wade, the reality is that many Americans also reject the abortion on-demand (including at a late stage of pregnancy, in some cases) regime created by that ruling.
A Gallup poll last year showed that a majority of Americans support restrictions on late-term abortion. Nevertheless, in recent years, too many on the left appear to have abandoned any sort of moderate consensus on the issue, with the pragmatism of “safe, legal and rare” in some cases even giving way to the ideological purism of “shout your abortion,” presumably hoping no one in middle America would notice.
Unfortunately for the Democrats’ electoral hopes, the American people did notice, and the Republicans are taking advantage politically. We saw a prime example of that in 2016, when Trump highlighted Hillary Clinton’s extreme position on abortion in their third presidential debate: “If you go with what Hillary is saying, in the ninth month, you can take the baby and rip the baby out of the womb of the mother just prior to the birth of the baby. Now, you can say that that’s OK and Hillary can say that that’s OK, but it’s not OK with me… That’s not acceptable.”
At the time, Clinton said Trump was using “scare rhetoric” (she had said in earlier comments that she believed mothers should be allowed to terminate a pregnancy at any point – up until birth – if her life is in danger). But just last year, Democrat Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York invited heated controversy by supporting legislation that would legalize abortion up to the 24th week of pregnancy (the week at which a live birth may be viable) when the “life or health of the mother” is in jeopardy or if the fetus would be unable to survive outside of the womb.
That same radical position has also been embraced by the national Democratic Party, and no current 2020 Democrat candidate — with the exception of Tulsi Gabbard — has indicated they would support restrictions on late-term abortions.
There’s no doubt all this extreme ideology may be popular among the “wokest” progressive activists on Twitter, but it is decidedly not among many Americans. Indeed, a new KFF poll found that fully half of Republicans think it is too easy for women to access an abortion.
As a candidate, Trump recognized the political wisdom of engaging on this issue, and as President, he has continued to call out Democrats over their views on abortion, notably condemning Virginia’s Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam last year for his comments on a radio show about a bill before the Virginia House of Delegates, which some initially construed as supporting infanticide. (Northam’s spokeswoman later said his comments were intended to address “the tragic and extremely rare case in which a woman with a nonviable pregnancy or severe fetal abnormalities went into labor.”)
Even more importantly for Friday’s marchers, Trump has achieved a number of pro-life accomplishments in his first term — such as signing a bill that would allow states to deny funding to Planned Parenthood, and appointing right-leaning justices to the Supreme Court — and, if re-elected, is promising to do even more in his second.
Now as the 2020 race approaches, the March for Life offered Trump the perfect chance to make abortion a defining issue of the campaign. He can point out how 2020 Democrats are arguing for few restrictions on abortion but also for funding by taxpayers as well, for women on Medicaid.
He can draw attention to how Democrats in Congress have repeatedly blocked legislation that would compel doctors to provide lifesaving treatment to babies who have survived abortions. (Opponents said one recent bill was unnecessary because a similar law already exists, the Born-Alive Infants Protection Act of 2002.) All of these contrasts should strongly benefit him with voters even outside his pro-life base.
As the Democrats’ impeachment spectacle falls flat, President Trump has positioned himself to respond by attacking them on what is perhaps their weakest ground, unveiling their true priorities for all American voters to see.