Voices: Thanks to Lindsey Graham, Republicans have lost control of the narrative

As far as the news cycle was concerned, Tuesday should have been a layup for Republicans. The latest Consumer Price Index report showed that while inflation remained relatively stable in the last month, it still increased 8.3 per cent in the past year, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average had its worst single day since June 2020 – this just as President Joe Biden held a public event meant to celebrate the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act.

But none of that dominated headlines in Washington. Instead, Republicans were put on the defensive by one of their own when Senator Lindsey Graham introduced legislation to restrict abortion to 15 weeks.

Graham’s legislation is part of a larger effort by Republicans to wrestle back the narrative after the Supreme Court’s Dobbs v Jackson decision overturned Roe v Wade this summer. Since that decision was met with fury and horror across the country, swing-state GOP Senate candidates like Blake Masters in Arizona have been backpedaling on their previous hardline views. They’ve been working hard to convince the wider electorate that they only oppose late-term or “partial-birth” abortions – a position they claim (wrongly) puts them in line with European countries, while saying (absurdly) that Democrats’ policies are similar to those of North Korea or China.

Graham tried to go that route, too: “We’re saying we’re going to join the rest of the world and not be like Iran,” he declared. (An analogy with some big holes in it, as PolitiFact has reported). He also said, in the early days after Roe’s overturn, that it was right for states to decide on the issue rather than having a law at the federal level. This week, he directly contradicted himself and said that he thought it was time for a federal ban.

Prior to the Dobbs ruling, a Wall Street Journal poll showed that 48 per cent of Americans favored measures like Graham’s – but that same poll also found that a majority of voters believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases. And that was before the overturn of Roe turned these hypothetical questions into potential matters of nationwide policy.

The legislation could not have come at a worse time. With Labor Day behind them, voters are now paying attention, and now Graham’s words are on the lips of every reporter talking to Republicans.

Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, who is up for reelection in Wisconsin, told CNN’s Manu Raju that the issue should be decided by the states. National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Rick Scott, likely irked that this made his plan to flip the Senate much harder, simply said when asked about the issue that he’d “look at it”.

Graham, meanwhile, made remarks that Democrats will likely repeat ad nauseam: “If we take back the House and the Senate, I can assure you we’ll have a vote [on banning abortion] on our bill. If the Democrats are in charge, I don’t know if we’ll ever have a vote on our bill.”

That prompted a swift pushback from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who said in response: “I think most of the members of my conference prefer that this will be dealt with at the state level.” But while the leader never says more than he must to get his point across, his much-followed former chief of staff Josh Holmes was fuming about it on Twitter.

“Dow down 1000, inflation report this morning at 8.3%, the economy in shambles and the only thing the media can talk about is a proposed 15-week abortion restriction that has next to zero chance of becoming law,” he tweeted. “Amazing alternate universe.”

Of course, Holmes is being glib. If McConnell didn’t want reporters talking about abortion with his members, then he should have never allowed Graham to hatch this plan in the first place.

Meanwhile, North Carolina Senator Thom Tillis, a loyal GOP footsoldier, told Igor Bobic at HuffPost what a lot of other Republicans wanted to say: “I, for one, want to focus on the inflation numbers that came out today. The imminent potential strike with railway workers. That’s what people are talking about.”

Tillis, the consummate Republican dealmaker, is currently working on legislation to codify same-sex marriage, which would neutralize a vital culture war issue for Democrats. But Graham has now dropped another culture war issue straight into Republicans’ lap, with severe implications for tough races across the country – not least the contest for North Carolina’s other Senate seat.