I was discussing the overturning of Roe with a very unhappy friend this weekend and she said something interesting to me- “It seems like the Republicans are a lot better at getting what they want than us.” It struck me as right, but not as obviously as it sounded.
Republicans enjoy a variety of structural advantages in our current political system. One is that their voters are better distributed geographically than Democrats. Their voters also show up more consistently in non-Presidential elections. It is legislatively easier to get rid of regulations and cut taxes than it is to create new programs. Frankly if your ideology is just to cut taxes and appoint judges, that’s easier than navigating a bureaucracy to help those who need it. In short, their voters are more patient and consistently vote, and most of what they want is easier to do.
None of this is a satisfying answer though on the issue of ending Roe. This was a major achievement and took a lot more than structural advantages to get done. This is at a minimum a little bit bigger of an achievement than Obamacare was for Democrats, it was a cause that took generations, and really the only recent victory of this magnitude may very well have been the election of President Barack Obama as our first black President. It is a victorious culmination for an entire movement (though I’d warn them that victories like this often bring about a vicious backlash). The eldest of their votes to overturn Roe came from an appointee of 30 years ago and five Presidents ago. In that time span the GOP Presidents appointed six judges to the high court while only winning three of the eight elections since the appointment of Clarence Thomas. Yes, the GOP has held the Senate a slim majority of the last 30 years, but they mostly built this dominance over the court despite electoral results, not necessarily because of them alone. They simply are better at wielding power when they get it.
The best explanation for why the GOP can deliver a large victory like overturning Roe, despite its unpopularity and the fact they are not currently in power lies in the difference between the two parties voters- Republicans built a coalition of single-issue and single-cause voters. Sure, the pro-life movement and the pro-gun movement poll under water with the population at-large, but voters don’t vote that way. The majority of people who vote based on those two issues singularly in every election vote their way. The same can be said of people who want massive deregulation of the market, ending gay marriage, subsidies for fossil fuels, and tax cuts. Most voters base their vote on the one or two things they care about most, not some evaluation of how the whole party platform impacts all of society. If you come into their party because of one issue, they hope you’ll eventually become a disciple of the rest, but that’s really not that important. They understand that if you’re a pro-life voter, you’re probably voting Republican in 2022 and so they simply need to deliver.
The truth is that the Democrats could never run their party that way. Even if 90% of Democrats believe in expanding access to health care, a clean environment, and police reform, there are boulevard sized divides over how to do it and how far to go. It is nearly impossible to keep everyone together on rhetoric, let alone legislative text. Do we want to expand the ACA or go to full single payer? Defund the police or reform them? Safe, legal, and rare abortion or abortion on demand? The truth is that Democrats are left to try and build a coalition big enough to beat the GOP’s collection of single-issue voters, and need some very different voters to come together in order to win. These people have very different overall pictures of the America they want.
Some of this comes down to Republican operatives in DC simply doing a better job. They’re far less worried about process and getting everyone to the table to gum up the wheels. Some of this all just goes back to who they are. The NRA generally probably agrees with the pro-life movement on abortion, but they’re there to get their way on guns. Everybody in their party has a lane. It’s easier to win when you generally speak with one voice.