The social conservatives now find themselves in a familiar position: standing up to the 70% of the Republican Party who regularly tear their hair out when something egregiously wrong, or insensitive, or just plain dumb spills from the mouth of of a socon. Washington Examiner columnist Philip Klein sees a pattern that was partially broken in the response to the Akin controversy.
This conflict is usually framed as one of the “grassroots” against “the establishment.” It played out with the divergent reactions to Sarah Palin in 2008, as well as Senate candidates Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell in 2010.
But in the case of Akin, this usual cycle didn’t hold. When Akin made his infamous comments about rape and pregnancy (“If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down”), the condemnation was swift and almost unanimous. It wasn’t just liberals who were excoriating Akin, and it wasn’t just establishment Republicans in Washington. The conservative base and Beltway Republicans united against Akin. Sean Hannity, who is typically very reluctant to criticize fellow conservatives, practically begged Akin to drop out of the race in radio interviews on Monday and Tuesday.
In truth, the GOP needs social conservatives to win. Social conservatives need a party vessel to advance their agenda. One side wants power. The other wants to save the soul of the nation. Practical politics meets fervid evangelicalism. “Get along, go along” versus “No Retreat — No Surrender.” The Great Schism occurred under lesser circumstances, which makes the continued alliance between socons and more secular-oriented Republicans all the more remarkable.
But the fissures that tear open at times like this reveal a stark truth: the two sides speak different languages, possess different worldviews, and, to some extent, exhibit different value systems that are not compatible with each other. Certainly the Democrats have their own problems with factionalism — the far left vs. the way-out-there left is always an entertaining war with more practical liberals trying to restrain their radical fellows from showing the true, coercive nature of their party. But the Democrats have mostly managed to stifle much of the loony left which, when they massage the language of their proposals and paper over their real intent, manage to look almost reasonable to the electorate, largely with the help of a willing and compliant media.
The two sides of the GOP usually talk past each other in matters of practical politics. The difference between most party regulars and a true believer is that the true believer would rather be “right” than win. This makes for dedicated activists but is hardly a winning strategy when the majority of voters disagree with you. The true believer also tends to reject empirical evidence that doesn’t line up with his worldview — say, like rejecting science that says the earth is older than 6,000 years. A majority of Republicans are far more practical when it comes to science and nature, exhibiting a healthy skepticism but rarely allowing their judgment to be clouded by matters of faith. And the value systems of libertarian conservatives and social conservatives diverge when matters of personal freedom are examined. This makes for schisms in the party that keep the antagonisms between factions at a low but constant boil that threatens to spill over when incidents like the Akin controversy emerge.
For the GOP, they are vouchsafed no political cover from an unfriendly press that gleefully pile on when the occasion is skewering a conservative for saying something even moderately insensitive, or indicative of a lack of empathy or understanding. Perhaps the social conservatives have a point, though, that some in the GOP are too eager, too often to join the chorus of criticism. Perhaps they are right that on some occasions it is better to hunker down and let the gaffe blow over.
But as Klein points out, the Akin matter is a different story. The man revealed himself to be singularly unfit for office. The fact that the McCaskill campaign recognized this early on and tried to boost his campaign (and are now arguing he should stay in, naturally) should tell Mike Huckabee that he’s not only backing the wrong horse, but that he should check the animal’s pulse to make sure it deserves to remain above ground.
Akin won’t get assistance from the national GOP and it is doubtful that he will be able to raise enough money to be competitive. The candidate is so toxic that anyone who wants a future in politics or in the party won’t touch him. His only hope — and it is a forlorn hope — is that Romney carries the state by double digits and McCaskill becomes so despised that she ends up being as toxic as Akin. That isn’t likely to happen — and neither is a GOP takeover of the Senate now that the most vulnerable Democrat running this election cycle fell into the greatest bit of political good luck in quite a while.