Monday, August 20, 2012

The Stone Age, Act IV: Akin’s mistake

THERE ARE some news stories that don’t just break, they explode, powering their way to the top of the news cycle by virtue of their sheer outrageousness. Missouri Republican Rep. Todd Akin of the Missouri 2nd Congressional District is about to ride one of these stories out. Or not.

In the course of one minute, with one statement in one interview, Akin may well have shifted the dynamics of the Missouri Senate race in favor of his Democratic opponent, Sen. Claire McCaskill, who’s in a tight fight in her re-election bid.

And Akin’s astonishingly insensitive remark on abortion in the case of rape feeds into a line of conservative reasoning that stretches all the way to the top of the food chain — the Romney-Ryan campaign.

In an interview with KTVI-TV on Sunday, Akin, an ardent opponent of Roe v. Wade, was asked if he backed abortion in the case of rape.

“From what I understand from doctors, that's really rare," said Akin said of pregnancy caused by rape. "If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let's assume maybe that didn't work or something. I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be on the rapist.”

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The walkback from the Akin campaign was almost immediate. Hours later, he issued a statement that included the following:

“As a member of Congress, I believe that working to protect the most vulnerable in our society is one of my most important responsibilities, and that includes protecting both the unborn and victims of sexual assault. In reviewing my off-the-cuff remarks, it's clear that I misspoke in this interview and it does not reflect the deep empathy I hold for the thousands of women who are raped and abused every year. Those who perpetrate these crimes are the lowest of the low in our society and their victims will have no stronger advocate in the Senate to help ensure they have the justice they deserve.

“I recognize that abortion, and particularly in the case of rape, is a very emotionally charged issue. But I believe deeply in the protection of all life and I do not believe that harming another innocent victim is the right course of action. I also recognize that there are those who, like my opponent, support abortion and I understand I may not have their support in this election.

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It’s not the first time Akin’s slipped the leash. Sunday’s comments came less than two weeks after he suggested banning RU486, the morning-after pill. “As far as I’m concerned, the morning-after pill is a form of abortion, and I think we just shouldn’t have abortion in this country,” he said on Aug. 8 on the Gregg Knapp Morning Show on KCMO radio.

“We're going to prove to Missourians that Todd Akin is out of touch with their problems, out of touch with the pain that they feel, and out of touch with the views that they hold dear,” McCaskill said the same day.

She didn’t realize how right she was.

Now a race that was leaning Akin’s way is likely to be a lot more competitive. McCaskill had been lagging in recent polls; one SurveyUSA poll had the Democratic senator trailing Akin by 11 points.

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WHAT A difference a day makes. A blogger at Red State called Akin’s comments “a Category 5 blundering” and gave voice to that which was unthinkable 24 hours ago:

“A reasonable Akin withdrawal scenario would be for Akin to voluntarily suspend his campaign and withdraw in favor of the person who got the 2nd highest # of votes in the MO-SEN primary: John Brunner. The bonus is that Brunner was already running better in polls than Akin; Brunner polled better than Akin before the primary, to such an extent that McCaskill ran ads to ‘help’ Akin in the primary.”

On Sunday, Nate Silver of the FiveThirtyEight election forecast blog at The New York Times, predicted that polls could swing against Akin by 10 points.

“Have to wait for polls, but on instinct I'd call McCaskill a 2:1 favorite in [the Missouri Senate race] now," he wrote. “Calling McCaskill a 2:1 favorite prices in some chance that Akin will drop out. I'd take her side of those odds if he stays in.”

Josh Kraushaar of the National Journal says not so fast. "Missouri is a Republican-trending state, and still conservative on social issues,” he observed Sunday. “This blunder is going to cost Akin dearly with female voters, but the race is still a toss-up. There's a reason why Sen. Claire McCaskill was trailing badly to her three Republican primary opponents. Her job approval numbers are very weak in Missouri."

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That may be, but Akin faces a problem that’s bad on so many levels, it’s hard to know where to start. And it’s a problem that may yield the kind of cascading damage that doesn’t fully reveal itself in a day or two or three.

First, there’s an issue with his phrasing. What the hell does “legitimate rape” mean? The phrase seems to reject rape as an implicit evil, suggests some gauzy distinction between “legitimate” and “illegitimate” rape.

That rhetorical stratification of a crime is bad enough. But what comes next — “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down” — is a statement of breathtaking idiocy, and the kind of thinking that weds the Republican brand to the 1950’s on matters of reproductive rights.

Next thing you know, Akin will be calling for the leeches.

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AND AKIN’S walkback, which Kraushaar thinks the candidate can get away with, comes in the heart of a political season that’s already revealed Conservatives Behaving Very Badly on matters of women’s reproductive rights.

In February, Rep. Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, convened a hearing on birth control in the wake of controversy over an Obama administration regulation requiring health insurance coverage for contraception. But the Issa hearing on women’s health care was convened with no women on the panel. Not one.

That same month, Foster Friess, the nine-figure-wealthy former investment manager and Santorum SuperPAC sugar daddy, managed to drop the jaw of the unflappable Andrea Mitchell of NBC News, when he piped up on the abortion rights debate.

“This contraceptive thing, my gosh, it’s such inexpensive — you know, back in my days, they’d use Bayer aspirin for contraception. The gals put it between their knees and it wasn’t that costly,” Friess said, not in the green room but on the air.

Bob McDonnell, the governor of Virginia, endorsed SB484, a measure passed in February by the state’s House of Delegates and Senate, requiring any woman seeking a first-trimester abortion in Virginia to undergo an invasive transvaginal ultrasound procedure that amounts to state-sanctioned rape. The bill was amended to remove its more invasive component and to put a slightly less invasive component in its place; McDonnell signed that into law in March.

And talk-radio Doberman and former recreational pharmaceutical enthusiast Rush Limbaugh jumped in the game, when on Feb. 29, he made comments about Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown law student who was denied the right to speak at Issa’s first hearing,: “What does it say about the college co-ed Susan Fluke, who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex? What does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute.”

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These paleoconservatives — maybe these are the “knuckle-draggers” House Speaker John Boehner referenced last week — have been doing timed-release damage to the GOP brand vis-à-vis women voters for months. The Akin unforced error won’t help; it just pounds home a punitive narrative on womens’ rights that Republicans have been creating since the campaign got underway.

For Kraushaar to say that the Missouri race remains a toss-up despite the Akin mistake begs the question of his perception of the impact of Missouri’s women voters in the first place. If the race was a toss-up before all this happened, is he obliquely suggesting that they won’t have any net effect in the outcome if Akin stays in?

Women are 51 percent of the Missouri state population, so the possibility of a pushback is very real. Nationally, you don’t have to go too far back to find one: In November 2011, women voters in Arkansas, one of the more reliably red states, voted down a “personhood” amendment that would have criminalized abortions and outlawed some forms of birth control.

Only nine states in the country have populations of women lower than 50 percent. And most of them are only slightly under 50 percent.

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AS YOU might expect, Team Romney was quick, and right, to put as much mileage between themselves and the Akin campaign as possible. Mitt Romney, in comments made to the National Review, called Akin’s comments “insulting,” “inexcusable” and “entirely without merit.”

But full-throated denunciations aside, the Romney camp faces the risk of blowback by association. On "CBS This Morning," National Journal correspondent Major Garrett said Akin’s gaffe was making the Romney campaign “nervous.”

"Democrats,” he said, “are going to make the point, as they have consistently, that Mitt Romney and his own approach to abortion, even though it has evolved over time, may be out of step with where the majority of the country is from the Obama campaign's point of view," Garrett said today.

And in a story today, CBS News’ Rebecca Kaplan offers more reason why Team Romney probably should be nervous, with a broad overview of anti-abortion positions taken by the Wisconsin congressman who’s now Romney’s running mate, a man who self-identified to The Weekly Standard as being “as pro-life as a person gets.”

Image credits: Akin: From his congressional Web site. McCaskill: U.S. Senate (public domain). Issa: ABC News. McDonnell: © 2010 Gage Skidmore. Limbaugh: NBC News. Romney-Ryan logo: Romney-Ryan campaign. 

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