News & Politics

Ted Cruz Levels the One Right-Wing Attack That Could Really Damage Trump

Trump's sketchy record on abortion might hurt him in upcoming primaries.

U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, speaks at the Americans for Prosperity Freedom Summit in Manchester, New Hampshire, April 12, 2014.
Photo Credit: Andrew Cline / Shutterstock.com

While most of the media is going after Donald Trump’s inconsistency on the Iraq War, which Trump seemed to support at the time but is now expressing anti-Bush outrage over, Ted Cruz has found another inconsistency in Trump’s record that’s likely to hurt him a lot more in the primaries: Abortion.

Cruz is running an ad in South Carolina featuring a 1999 clip of Trump declaring himself “very pro-choice.” Trump’s lawyers, in a move that reeks of desperation, have threatened to sue for defamation. Desperation because it’s a matter of public record that Trump made this switch, oh-so-coincidentally when he started to get more interested in politics. Trump himself has even admitted as much and has a practiced conversion story when asked about it.

Cruz seems like he couldn’t be more delighted about the empty threats. At a high-drama news conference on Wednesday, Cruz dared Trump to sue him over this ad. “I have to say to Mr. Trump, you have been threatening frivolous lawsuits for your entire adult life,” Cruz taunted while in South Carolina. “If you want to file a lawsuit challenging this ad, claiming defamation, file the lawsuit.”

Trump’s instinctual brand of politics usually serves him well, but this move is a misfire. If he was smart, he’d be changing the subject away from abortion rights as much as possible, instead of keeping his conveniently timed flip-flops on the subject in the headlines. Instead, he’s turned what would have been an ad seen by relatively view voters into a national story right as Cruz is creeping back on Trump in the polls, even pulling ahead in a new NBC poll.

Despite all the Planned Parenthood hysteria the right has been stoking since the summer, reproductive rights have had surprisingly little impact on the Republican primary. That, however, has been poised to change in the next few weeks, as the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear Whole Women’s Health v Cole on March 2, which is the day after Super Tuesday, when Republican voters in 12 states will have a chance to primary. If anti-choicers get their way and the Supreme Court rules in favor of Texas’s new slew of abortion restrictions meant to shut down most of the abortion clinics in the state, it’s likely that abortion will be functionally illegal in huge swaths of the country within a decade.

Trump’s inconsistency on the Iraq War, moving from apparent support to denunciation, doesn’t seem to be hurting him. That shouldn’t be a surprise, because his transition mirrors that of typical conservative voters, who went from going all-in on the war to, at best, pretending not to be embarrassed by the whole debacle a decade later.

Reproductive rights, however, are a different story. Not only has there been a major escalation of attacks on abortion rights, with red states passing literally hundreds of restrictions on abortion, the right has moved on to restricting contraception access, as well. There have been dozens of lawsuits challenging insurance coverage for contraception and both state and federal defunding efforts aimed at destroying Planned Parenthood’s affordable contraception programs.

Cruz has put himself right in the middle of fight against non-procreative sex. In addition to the ad highlighting Trump’s abortion flip-flop, Cruz is running an ad in South Carolina endorsing “personhood” laws that would define fertilized eggs as persons who have more rights than women. (More, because actual people do not have the right to use someone else’s body against their will, but these laws would extend that right to fertilized eggs.)

“Personhood” laws are about a lot more than abortion. They open the door to prosecuting women for miscarriage and stillbirth, by allowing states to accuse women of child neglect if a pregnancy fails. It’s also clear, though they tend to be cagey when challenged about this, that anti-choicers hope to use these laws to outlaw IUDs and hormonal contraception. Even though both the pill and IUDs work by preventing fertilization, most anti-choice activists choose to believe they work by killing fertilized eggs insteadIt’s not scientifically true, but scientific falsehoods have never stopped the right before and there’s no reason to think it would change if they got these “personhood” laws in place.

(Cruz has denied that he’s anti-contraception, but it is worth noting that he carefully restricted his comments to condom use and has side-stepped the question of whether or not he supports efforts to restrict access to more effective, female-controlled forms.)

In this kind of radicalized environment, Trump’s history of being less than fully onboard with the forced childbirth program is a problem, which is no doubt why he’s panicking and making empty legal threats. Certainly, the anti-choice media is starting to sour on Trump.

The Christian Post put out an op-ed on Tuesday hinting that Trump’s anti-choice views aren’t strong enough, in part because he refuses to sign off on the anti-choice myth that the majority of Planned Parenthood’s work is abortion. (About 3% of Planned Parenthood’s services are abortion, but anti-choicers claim it’s nearly all they do, in part because anti-choicers have grown accustomed to defining female-controlled contraception like the pill as “abortion.”)

LifeNews launched a similar attack, sneering at Trump for his comments that Planned Parenthood’s non-abortion services are “wonderful things.” The site denied this is true, arguing that Planned Parenthood doesn’t provide “prenatal care or health care.” (Translating from anti-choice-ese: STD testing, cancer screening, and contraception services don’t count as “health care” to them, because they make non-procreative sex safer for women.)

Live Action News also denounced Trump for his support for reproductive health services, arguing that the money should instead go to centers that don’t specialize in this care or, in many cases, aren’t equipped to offer STD treatment or contraception provision at all.

To be clear, Trump’s opinions on these matters are a lot closer to the general public than to the religious right’s. This attitude, that the only legitimate reason a woman should ever see a gynecologist is for prenatal care or otherwise she’s a dirty slut, is really, really far out of the mainstream, which is why even anti-choice messaging on this tends to be elliptical and cagey instead of direct. Even most of the people who are angrily screaming about Planned Parenthood hypocritically don’t apply the no-gynecology rule to their own lives. The politics around this issue are objectively weird, no doubt about it.

But, and Trump understands this when it comes to other issues, conservative politics are tribal, not logical. Escalating hostility towards reproductive rights is just a way for conservatives to channel their anger about both women’s growing independence and their sense that they were left out of the sexual revolution.

Considering Trump’s own lengthy history of being a public fan of screwing, this is a soft spot for him. He’s been able to evade too much damage from it, mostly by virtue of being male (it’s women’s sexuality that is hated by the right, not men’s). Still, his obvious disinterest in punishing women for having sex is a political weakness in the primary, one that can’t help but become more prominent as national chatter about this issue starts to rise.

Amanda Marcotte is a politics writer for Salon. She's on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte. 

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