It’s a marriage made somewhere south of heaven and north of the infernal regions. Joined at the hip and at each others throats for most of the last 30 years, social conservatives and the rest of the Republican Party can’t seem to help themselves in forming circular firing squads when something like the Todd Akin foofaraw erupts. The fact that the GOP has lost only three presidential elections in that time frame is remarkable considering the quadrennial bloodletting in the primaries and the barely concealed platform fights that threaten to break into open warfare over social issues.
When the Todd Akin story broke, there was an immediate call from party regulars, most of the internet right, and the conservative punditocracy for the hapless congressman to take a very long walk off a very short pier and slip back into a well-deserved anonymity, leaving the race to someone who wouldn’t shoot himself in the head when aiming for his foot.
But something happened on the way to Akin’s withdrawal party: a bevy of social conservatives rallied to his side and insisted that his toxic remarks about rape and idiotic notions of female biology were, at most, a minor irritant and nothing for the “establishment” to go ballistic over.
Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council was almost nonchalant about Akin’s nuclear bomb of a gaffe. “We’re talking about someone who misspoke,” Perkins said. I suppose that’s one way to put it. Another way to put it would be to say that Akin is a scientific illiterate with 19th century notions of rape and the towering lack of judgment not to know when to keep his ignorance to himself. “I used the wrong words in the wrong way, and for that I apologize,” Akin said. The problem is that it is impossible to apologize for being stupid. Nobody is buying the “I misspoke” defense because it was crystal clear — and will be made more so by Democrats from now until the election — that Akin believed what he said and the fact that he was informed afterward that he was wrong doesn’t cut it. “Now you tell me” isn’t a defense either.
Akin still might have withdrawn had former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee not rallied to his side and encouraged the candidate to leap off the cliff with the rest of the social right. Huckabee’s statement is a mind-boggling mixture of denial and spite.
The Party’s leaders have for reasons that aren’t rational, left [Akin] behind on the political battlefield, wounded and bleeding, a casualty of his self-inflicted, but not intentional wound. In a Party that supposedly stands for life, it was tragic to see the carefully orchestrated and systematic attack on a fellow Republican. Not for a moral failure or corruption or a criminal act, but for a misstatement which he contritely and utterly repudiated. I was shocked by GOP leaders and elected officials who rushed so quickly to end the political life of a candidate over a mistaken comment in an interview. This was a serious mistake, but it was blown out of proportion not by the left, but by Akin’s own Republican Party. Is this what the party really thinks of principled pro-life advocates? Do we forgive and forget the verbal gaffes of Republicans who are “conveniently pro-life” for political advantage, but crucify one who truly believes that every life is sacred?
Who ordered this “Code Red” on Akin? There were talking point memos sent from the National Republican Senatorial Committee suggesting language to urge Akin to drop out. Political consultants were ordered to stay away from Akin or lose future business with GOP committees. Operatives were recruited to set up a network of pastors to call Akin to urge him to get out. Money has changed hands to push him off the plank. It is disgraceful. From the spotlights of political offices and media perches, it may appear that the demand for Akin’s head is universal in the party. I assure you it is not. There is a vast, but mostly quiet army of people who have an innate sense of fairness and don’t like to see a fellow political pilgrim bullied.
What’s next, Mike. “We are the 30%”?
So despite the fact that GOP heavyweights from Mitt Romney down to Senator John Cornyn, head of the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, were urging him to withdraw, Akin dug in his heels thanks to single-issue fanatics who see the campaign against the candidate as a personal affront, an attack on their issues. No doubt socons have a right to be paranoid. There are many in the party who wish that the economy and budget were front and center with social issues taking a back seat to the concerns of the vast majority of Americans who care about jobs. Now, apparently, the GOP has been forced into a debate on abortion — or at least Mr. Huckabee and his allies have placed the party in a position where they will be forced to defend the “no exceptions” abortion plank in the platform. The fact that only 20% of the country agrees with that stance means that as a practical political matter, the argument is a loser from the get-go, regardless of its “morality.” (Hint: Most people don’t like being branded “immoral” for holding a position different from social conservatives.)
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.