Many Republicans were dismayed by the federal abortion ban that Sen. Lindsey Graham (R–S.C.) unveiled this week, viewing it as politically unwise and constitutionally suspect. But yesterday Sen. Marco Rubio (R–Fla.), who is running for reelection this year, announced that he is co-sponsoring Graham's bill, which would prohibit abortion at 15 weeks of gestation or later. Rubio's support for the bill blatantly contradicts the position he was taking just a few weeks ago, when he said abortion regulation should be left to the states, and his avowed support for federalism more generally.
During an interview with CBS Miami's Jim DeFede in late August, Rubio explained the significance of the Supreme Court's June 24 ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, which overturned Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that established a constitutional right to abortion. "All the Supreme Court has said is that now that debate is not going to happen in Washington, where it wasn't happening at all because of Roe v. Wade," Rubio said. "Now that decision has to be made at the state level. And the state legislature will weigh in. Florida has an abortion law; it cuts it off at 15 weeks. Every state will have its own law."
When DeFede specifically asked Rubio whether he would "support a federal ban on abortion," the senator reiterated his support for a state-by-state resolution of the issue, although he hedged a bit. "I think that right now, this issue is appropriately before the states," he said. "That's where it always should have been, that's where it is now, and I think that's where it will be for the foreseeable future. We don't have the votes now or anytime in the near future for that, and frankly, I think this issue is better decided at the state level at this point, because as I see it playing out, every state will now—people will have more influence over their state legislature than they do over Congress and certainly over the Supreme Court."
Although Rubio's reference to the lack of congressional support for an abortion ban suggested that his devotion to federalism might be politically contingent, he made it clear that he did not favor such legislation "at this point" or "anytime in the near future." That was less than three weeks ago.
What changed? Not the Constitution, which does not give Congress the authority to regulate abortion or any other medical procedure. Not the Commerce Clause, which Graham cites as a justification for his bill based on an interpretation broad enough to obliterate the constitutional distinction between state and federal powers. Not even the prospects of winning Senate approval for an abortion ban, which are just as dim now as they were when Rubio sat down for that interview. The only thing that has changed is Rubio's calculation of whether backing a federal abortion ban will, on balance, make him more or less attractive to voters in November.
Democrats think that issue will help them by reminding moderates of "extreme MAGA Republicans' intent to criminalize women's health freedom in all 50 states and arrest doctors for providing basic care," as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D–Calif.) puts it. But Rubio thinks he can make Democrats—and in particular, his Senate opponent, Rep. Val Demings (D–Fla.)—look extreme by showing that they oppose even relatively modest restrictions like a 15-week ban, which would cover a small share of abortions (less than 8 percent, judging from federal data).
"I've always been pro-life," Rubio told reporters when he was asked about Graham's bill. "You need to be asking Democrats what restrictions they support…Democrats won't vote for any restriction of any kind on abortion."
While Rubio may be consistent in his opposition to abortion, he is utterly unreliable as a defender of constitutional principles that he claims to care about. "The majority of Americans believe that the federal government shouldn't be involved in everything," he said during a 2020 discussion sponsored by American Compass. While "there are some important things the federal government has to do, like protect us from foreign countries that seek to do us harm," he explained, "the core of conservatism for a long time" has been "limited government and federalism, the notion that it's at your local and state level, where to the extent government needs to be involved, it should be involved and be more effective."
Desperate to remain in power, Rubio has blithely jettisoned that "core of conservatism." He has gone from saying "that decision has to be made at the state level" and "every state will have its own law" to arguing that the decision should be made at the federal level, overriding the choices that states have made. Rubio is betraying his avowed principles not to protect "unborn children" (since Graham's bill has zero chance of passing) but simply to enhance his electoral prospects.
That is completely in character for Rubio, whose scruples are no match for his blind ambition. While running for the 2016 Republican nomination, Rubio said Donald Trump's "reckless and dangerous" rhetoric was reminiscent of "third-world strongmen." He castigated Trump for using "language that basically justifies physically assaulting people who disagree with you." He condemned Trump as a "con artist" and "the most vulgar person ever to aspire to the presidency," warning that his nomination would "shatter and fracture the Republican Party and the conservative movement."
That evaluation did not stop Rubio from endorsing Trump as the Republican nominee in 2016, when the senator suddenly decided that the "con artist" could be trusted to "curb spending" and "get our national debt under control." This year, after Trump endorsed Rubio's reelection, the senator had only nice things to say about the former president, notwithstanding his increasingly erratic and alarming behavior while in office, culminating in his refusal to accept the outcome of the 2020 election, which led to a violent assault on Rubio's workplace. "He's brought a lot of people and energy into the Republican Party," Rubio told CNN.
Back in 2016, Rubio warned that "we're on the verge of having someone take over the conservative movement who is a con artist." In other words, Trump's embrace of conservative principles was cynical and untrustworthy, based on political calculation rather than sincere belief. While Rubio was dismayed that voters did not see through that sort of pretense, he is counting on them to ignore it this fall.