The buzzphrase-du-jour in the right side of the national dialogue these days seems to be “Elections have consequences.” These words are brandished in the general direction of Democrats and liberals who have the temerity to ask questions about President Bush’s choice to replace Sandra O’Connor on the Supreme Court. The implication is that, having re-elected President Bush in 2004, the American people — even the 59 million (48 percent, for 252 of 270 electoral votes) who voted for the other guy — should now return to their homes, shut up, and let the Republicans have everything they demand.
The debate over John G. Roberts will proceed nonetheless, as it should; the Senate will ask questions, as the Constitution says it must. At the end of it all, it seems extraordinarily likely that Roberts will be confirmed. Unless there’s a video store somewhere that has records of some hitherto unknown proclivity on the nominee’s part for an unAmerican sexual practice of some sort (and that store’s owner doesn’t like Roberts), or some other skeleton comes crashing out of the man’s closet, there doesn’t seem to be much basis for the Democrats to unite to oppose him. Since his paper trail is limited, we won’t really know what kind of justice he’ll be until he’s on the court. By then, of course, it will be too late — too late for the conservatives to say, whoops, we just got another Kennedy or Souter, should he prove to be less radical than they wish; more likely, too late for the liberals should his conservatism prove as dependable and far-reaching as those of President Bush’s favorite justices, Scalia and Thomas.
If the consequences of the Roberts appointment and the almost inevitable second Bush Supreme Court appointment are to uproot significant tracts of Supreme Court precedent; if we see the Court writing a growing pile of blank checks to the executive branch in the “war on terror”; if the rights of individuals continue to be dismantled in favor of the rights of businesses; if environmental regulations and other protections of citizens’ health and welfare are struck down on the basis of originalist constitutional arguments — if all of that happens, I imagine, Democrats and liberals will be upset, things will get worse in the U.S., but political life will proceed as before. But if the Bush appointments result, as they might well, in the overturning of Roe v. Wade, I think we might be in for some “consequences.”
The conservative movement has deluded itself that its extremist anti-abortion stance is shared by the majority of Americans. Those of us on the other side believe that the majority of Americans continue to think decisions about pregnancies are best left in the hands of individual women, not courts and politicians. (Polls? Well, they tend to vary depending on the wording of the question, so you can really push them in any direction you want.)
If Roe goes down, then I think it’s quite possible that a wide slice of American voters who think of themselves as moderates, and who bought into the Bush/Rove positioning of the Bush Administration as essentially centrist, will finaly wake up and understand that they bought a Republican pig in a poke — that their votes for Bush and for other Republicans of his generation have ushered in an era of radical cultural overreaching on the part of religious conservatives, whose agenda is anything but mainstream. We’d have to wait until 2006, or 2008, maybe even beyond, for such awareness to “have consequences” — even longer, certainly, to restore the Supreme Court itself to some kind of balance. But those consequences could be potent and lasting.
I am not arguing that Democrats should welcome a decision overturning Roe because it will galvanize support for them; there’s too much at stake in individual lives and families for anyone with a heart to embrace that sort of intensify-the-contradictions thinking. But it’s time for those of us in the opposition to think about what happens when conservative state legislatures start outlawing abortion. Elections have consequences, indeed.