Todd Akin Reaction Assessment
By now, anyone reading this column is familiar with Todd Akin, recently voted Republican nominee for the United States Senate from Missouri, and his medical understanding that pregnancy cannot result from “legitimate rape.” Akin has come under fire not just from liberals and the media but from his own party, with most Republican leaders, including Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, calling for Akin to withdraw from the race. The National Republican Senatorial Committee said it would spend no money to help Akin if he stayed. Akin had until yesterday to drop out without a court order, but vowed to remain.
While Akin’s comment deserves the strongest condemnation from anyone of any political stripe, there is good reason to be cynical about the Republican reaction. Through the past four years, Republican leaders have been playing with fire with the rhetoric of the most extreme Republican members of Congress. The fierce condemnation of Akin stands in stark contrast to the silence of Republican leadership on the consistently ignorant and/or inflammatory statements of Republican House members like Steve King (one of the few people in Akin’s corner), Virginia Foxx, Michelle Bachmann, and Louie Gohmert. To be fair, it isn’t as though the Republican Party is promoting these people for leadership positions, and no party or movement should be defined by its most extreme voices. However, it’s apparent that the GOP is willing to take advantage of the following these figures—and media figures like Rush Limbaugh—have created and the anti-Obama/anti-liberal hysteria they foment. The enthusiasm of the Republican base helped drive Republican victories in 2010 and could be a big advantage for Romney in November. Akin went too far, provoking too much attention and a public backlash that outweighs any value he has in motivating the base.
The clearest analogue to Akin is Sharron Angle. Like Akin, Angle won a hotly contested primary despite having little establishment support. Like Akin, Angle was seen (in the end, correctly) as being too extreme to win a general election even against a vulnerable candidate, and was seen at the time of the primary as the only chance the Democratic incumbent had for re-election. While Angle arguably never made a single statement as offensive as Akin’s, several comments (including one showing great insensitivity to rape victims) revealed that she lacked the temperament to be a United States senator. Nonetheless, once the Republicans realized she was their only hope of beating Harry Reid, the establishment was firmly in her corner.
[pullquote_right]From the perspective of his Republican colleagues, Akin’s biggest sin is bad political timing.[/pullquote_right]
A big difference between Akin and Angle is timing. Whereas Angle spread a series of ignorant statements over the course of the campaign, Akin made one hugely controversial statement at a time when Missouri election law provided a window for him to easily leave the race. Had the Republican establishment been given a similar opportunity to push Angle out of the race after her primary victory, they very well may have taken advantage of it. Similarly, if Akin remains close in the polls, it will be interesting to see whether the rest of the party rallies behind him with control of the Senate hanging in the balance.
Another reason to be cynical about the Republican condemnation of Akin is the entire party’s dismal record on women’s health issues. As many have pointed out, in 2011, 171 House Republicans, including Paul Ryan, co-sponsored legislation that would narrow the exception for federal funding of abortion to instances of “forcible rape.” (Ryan now says “there’s no splitting hairs over rape,” despite having sponsored legislation that would do exactly that.) The only difference between this position and Akin’s statement is Akin’s bogus science. Both Akin’s statement and the House bill start from the premise that the law and society have accepted an overly expansive definition of rape and that the sexual assault victims who do not meet the GOP’s definition of rape should not have legal access to abortion. Ryan’s personal position is even more extreme, as he opposes abortion in all instances except when the life of the mother is at risk—now the official position of the Republican Party—though he acknowledges that Romney’s position would control policy of a Romney/Ryan White House.
Viewed against the extreme anti-abortion rights position of the GOP, Akin’s biggest sin from the perspective of his Republican colleagues is bad political timing. The other major difference between Akin and Angle is that Angle’s comments weren’t made in the heat of a presidential race. Republicans backed off slightly on some of their more extreme anti-women’s health positions—such as a Virginia law requiring transvaginal ultrasounds for women seeking abortion—after the charge that the GOP was engaged in a “war on women“ began to stick and polls began showing a growing gender gap between President Obama and Romney. Akin’s comments come at a critical moment in the presidential election, with polls showing a toss-up, Romney trying to build momentum off the announcement of his running mate, and each party trying to control the narrative going into the party’s conventions.
As Representatives Foxx, King, Bachmann, and Gohmert can attest, it’s still acceptable to say hateful things about gays, women, Muslims, immigrants, and other groups in today’s GOP. Todd Akin just picked a really bad week to do it.