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Marc A. Thiessen: Abortion is the third rail that will kill a No Labels presidential bid

Marc A. Thiessen Washington Post

In announcing last week that he will not seek reelection to the Senate – and hinting at a third-party presidential bid – Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., wrote an op-ed in which he decried the lack of bipartisanship in Washington. His first example? The Senate’s failure to pass his legislation to reverse Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization and codify Roe v. Wade.

Big mistake. Abortion is the third rail that will kill a No Labels presidential bid – and the Dobbs decision is what makes a No Labels bid viable.

The rap against No Labels is that a 2024 ticket will help elect Donald Trump by siphoning votes from President Biden without drawing significant Republican support away from Trump. Well, if Manchin runs next year on a promise to reverse Dobbs, that will definitely be the case.

The GOP is a pro-life party. According to Gallup, more than three-quarters of Republicans call themselves “pro-life” – the most in nearly 30 years of Gallup polling – and 93% support restrictions on abortion that were not permissible under Roe. This means that if No Labels wants Republican voters, it will have to win over pro-life Republicans.

Many of the Trump-skeptical Republicans it hopes to attract held their noses and voted for Trump in 2016 precisely because the Supreme Court was on the ballot. After the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, the court’s conservative majority was in peril, and Trump promised to nominate conservative justices. He kept that promise, putting three outstanding (and young) conservatives onto the high court who delivered the votes for the historic Dobbs decision.

Does Manchin think these Republican voters are now going to turn around and opt for a third-party ticket that promises to overturn the decision that was the very reason they grudgingly supported Trump in the first place?

Ironically, that decision is what has freed pro-life Republicans to consider voting for No Labels. Dobbs took the abortion issue out of federal hands and sent it to the states. That means No Labels can be neutral on abortion, promising to let states sort it out, which would allow it to appeal to both abortion opponents and supporters.

No Labels should take a position similar to that of former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, who has correctly pointed out that there are not enough votes in the Senate for federal abortion legislation anyway. Manchin opposes getting rid of the filibuster, which means 60 votes would be needed to pass a law either restricting or loosening abortion access. Why would No Labels take a divisive stand – one it cannot deliver on – that would only alienate the very voters it needs to win?

No third party has ever come close to winning the presidency, but there are reasons next year’s election might be a moment that defies this history. First, the level of dissatisfaction with both parties’ leading candidates is unprecedented.

Large majorities of Americans say they do not want a Trump-Biden rematch. But few Republicans who don’t want Trump will vote for Biden, and most Democrats who don’t want Biden as their nominee certainly won’t vote for Trump. They have no safe harbor. A bipartisan unity ticket could give them the palatable alternative they are longing for.

Conservative voters who would normally never even think of supporting a third-party nominee might be willing to consider doing so this time around, given they just secured a 6-3 conservative majority on the court. Many pro-life Republicans might feel free to take a risk – but not for a ticket that promises to reverse the gains they’ve made in the Supreme Court.

No Labels should appeal to them by focusing on forging bipartisan consensus on other pressing issues – such as inflation, jobs, border security and crime – not on divisive topics such as abortion. The only way No Labels stands a chance of being more than a spoiler is if it appeals to and wins a substantial share of the Republican vote. And the only way it can do that is by remaining neutral on abortion.

It is not clear whether No Labels will field a ticket, or whether Manchin would head it. But this much is certain: Without the votes of pro-life Republicans, No Labels has no path to victory. If No Labels runs on a promise to codify Roe, it will not only lose – it will also put Donald Trump back in the Oval Office.

Follow Marc A. Thiessen @marcthiessen on X (formerly Twitter).