NATIONAL HARBOR, MD—After the CPAC crowd drowned out a protestor with chants of “USA! USA! USA!” and after they cheered the death of Qasem Soleimani and gave standing ovations to the Second Amendment, ICE agents, the border wall, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, they still had the energy to stand and cheer when Vice President Mike Pence said he was proud to be the “Vice President to a President who stands without apology for the sanctity of human life.”
Pence, who spoke on Thursday, was there to praise Donald Trump’s accomplishments and to remind the administration’s most ardent supporters that the “movement” needed another four years in the White House. The crowd, in turn, chanted “four more years” and “build that wall.” “Oh, we’re building it,” Pence responded in his characteristic placid tone. But if the border wall, ICE agents, and the near-total transformation of the federal court system are just the beginning of what one speaker described as Trump administration’s American “renaissance,” then the continued rollback of abortion rights is one of the administration’s most material successes.
“Life is winning in America,” Pence said during his speech. The crowd clapped for the Trump administration’s domestic gag rule, which removed Title X funding from clinics that provide abortion (a 1970 law makes it illegal to use Title X money on abortion care) and reallocated it to crisis clinics that may have softened their message but remain ardently anti-abortion. And, as Pence reminded his CPAC supporters, the administration’s domestic gag rule was recently upheld by a federal appeals court. The number of women served by Title X has dropped precipitously under the administration and at least one state no longer has any Title X clinics, but at CPAC, that didn’t matter; restructuring Title X was part of the project of making America great.
As Pence emphasized Trump’s anti-abortion credentials, he welcomed “pro-life Americans” to the Republican Party. “To every pro-life American, Republican, Democrat or Independent, you have a home in today’s Republican party,” he said. “Donald Trump,” Pence added, “is the most pro-life president in American history.” A sea of red baseball caps stood and cheered.
This year’s CPAC is effectively a reelection rally, filled with ominous warnings about the rise of socialism and foreign ideologies that threaten American capitalism. But to balance the looming threat of what one panel moderator called “socialist-communist Bernie Sanders,” the Trump loyal are here to celebrate the president’s track record. Echoing Pence, the panelists on CPAC’s Direct Action Training session “Word to Persuade Others: Life” reiterated Trump’s anti-abortion record, arguing that his “commitment to life” was central to persuading undecided voters.
Moderated by consultant and former member of the Trump administration Holly Turner, the panel, Turner emphasized, was one of compassion and “not a hostile conversation.” Her tone was echoed by Mallory Quigley, vice president of communications at the anti-abortion political advocacy group Susan B. Anthony List, who said that speaking “the truth in love” about abortion was a necessity. Quigley was there, along with a data scientist and an SBA campaigner, to explain to CPAC how to persuade voters on the issue of abortion. “Pro-life is politically smart,” Quigley said. She posited that it was a wedge issue that could be used to peel off voters from the “radically” distant Democrats, arguing that “there’s no room for differing opinions if you’re in the Democratic Party.”
Many of Quigley’s talking points echoed Pence’s: America is a pro-life nation and Trump is a champion of the anti-abortion movement. But if Pence worked in applause lines aimed at the most loyal Republicans, the panelists were interested in persuading undecided voters. According to Adam Schaeffer, a data scientist at Evolving Strategies, the data points say that most Americans support abortion in the first trimester but want “more restriction than the Democratic Party is offering” in the second and third trimesters. (Recent polling has echoed Schaeffer’s findings.) The SBA List has seized on that fact, focusing their state-to-state campaigns on “education” about fetal pain, taxpayer-funded abortion, and the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act, a bill sponsored by Senator Ben Sasse that would “prohibit a health care practitioner from failing to exercise the proper degree of care in the case of a child who survives an abortion or attempted abortion.”
Again emphasizing love and healing, Quigley described a door-to-door anti-abortion campaign that “mimicked [the] relationship between mother and child.” She described one-on-one conversations where voters were appalled by the so-called radical position on later abortion held by the left (the panel, it almost goes without saying, misrepresented later abortion and the varying positions held on the issue by different Democrats). Quigley described this shift as a “conversion experience at the door.” Here, she argued, is where Republicans can win: Focus on later abortion and fetal pain and avoid talking about the right’s position on first-trimester abortion and even birth control. When asked how to speak to voters who emphasized exceptions for rape and abortion, Schaeffer told the audience to focus instead on how “radically” distant Democrats are from the average American voter.
Even though compassion animated the conversation, one that according to Turner, should be led by women (“It’s so important for women to be the messengers”), Quigley was clear that the Republican Party would never be open to abortion rights. Asked if there was room in the party for voters who supported abortion, she quickly responded: “Absolutely not.” It was a telling reminder that Trump’s Republican Party is united on abortion—that they have clarity that’s been transformed into a specific plan animated “conversions” and soft voices, driven by compassionate women who embrace their mission. Here, dismantling Title X is draining the swamp and Trump’s comments on later abortion during his 2016 debate with Hillary Clinton was “a game-changing moment.”
At the end of the panel, Quigley was asked about Georgia and Alabama’s fetal heartbeat laws which would effectively ban abortion in the states. She didn’t exactly answer the question but instead said that “Roe was a profoundly undemocratic position” that had been forced on American women “by seven men.” This movement, Quigley and Turner implied, was a movement for and by women. But it’s led by Donald Trump and Mike Pence and, in a few days, six men might dismantle what’s left of Roe.