Blame it on the “idea cloud”—that cumulus cartoon bubble that dumps the same idea on diverse populations at once. Alternatively, blame Todd Akin, the Missouri congressman and Senate candidate who infamously asserted that “legitimate rape” victims don’t often get pregnant because the female reproductive system has a way of shutting itself down under such circumstances.
Whatever the prompt, millions of Americans simultaneously have been slapping their foreheads and exclaiming: “What the *#@% is wrong with Republicans?!”
To be fair, we can stipulate that Akin is sui generis, occupying a realm of nitwittery uniquely his own. Taken in isolation, his comments might have been only a blip in the news cycle. But his timing was, shall we say, immaculate, coinciding with GOP platform committee meetings and Mitt Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan as his running mate. The platform includes one of Ryan’s signature issues—a human life amendment to the Constitution that could preclude abortion even for rape or incest. And Ryan, in addition to being the party’s budget genie, happens to have coauthored with Akin legislation seeking to redefine rape as “forcible” (as opposed to statutory) as a way of limiting public spending on abortion.
The human life amendment is actually a relic, having been part of the platform since 1984, but the platform also includes new language for the first time declaring abortion bad for a woman’s “health and well-being.” It is certainly bad for some women, but also certainly not for all. Who exactly is making this determination for womankind?
In any case, a storm more perfect than Isaac (it seems impossible to discuss Republicans in non-biblical terms) has formed to the benefit of Democrats—and not just the metaphorical kind. That hallelujah chorus you hear is coming from David Axelrod’s Chicago office, where he and other campaign strategists were seen performing grand jetés in celebration of their good fortune. What more delicious manna than the opportunity to conjoin in the public’s mind the idiocy of Akin, who weirdly serves on the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, and Romney’s sixth son, Ryan. Such a GOP twofer can only be a gift from You Know Who.
Alas, Akin’s comments were not in isolation. They followed a year of explosive events and remarks involving Republican lawmakers and leaders—and the women they seek to “protect.” A one-man firing squad, Akin simply provided the exclamation point at the end of a Faulknerian paragraph of Republican offenses, from laws attempting to require transvaginal probes for women seeking abortion to promises to defund Planned Parenthood to Rush Limbaugh’s calling law student Sandra Fluke a “slut” when she testified about the need for insurance coverage for contraception. Agree or not with her argument, powerful men shouldn’t call young women sluts for attempting to participate in a grown-up debate about health care. Agree or not with a woman’s decision to end a pregnancy, elected officials shouldn’t parse the definition of rape as “legitimate” or otherwise. For the record, the bill to redefine rape as “forcible” had 227 Republican cosponsors.
“77% of Americans believe birth control shouldn’t be part of the national political debate.”—Bloomberg National Poll
Conservative Donor Foster Friess:
‘Back in my day, they used Bayer aspirin for contraceptives. The Gals put it between their knees, and it wasn’t that costly.’—MSNBC
The cumulative effect of these episodes, combined with Democrats’ carefully crafted GOP “war on women” narrative, have boxed Republicans into a corner of stubborn self-defeat. Hackneyed and contrived as this “war” is, there’s a reason it has gained traction. “Because it’s true,” says Margaret Hoover, a leading voice in the young conservative movement, CNN contributor, gay-marriage advocate, and author of American Individualism—a call to arms for her great-grandfather Herbert Hoover’s rugged individualism tempered with a community spirit suitable for the millennial generation.
Opting for a vernacular expression of her frustration, Hoover queries: “What the (*#@%) is wrong? What has happened within the party infrastructure that has malfunctioned so desperately, so that this minority of representatives are in such positions of power that are so out of step with the majority of Republicans?”
There is something wrong with the Republican Party, the survival of which demands more than a few moments of self-examination and reflection. I wouldn’t use the word “stupid,” though it is tempting. Suicidal seems more apt. The GOP, through its platform, its purity tests, pledges, and its emphasis on social issues that divide rather than unite, has shot itself in the foot, eaten said foot, and still managed to stampede to the edge of the precipice. Is extinction in its DNA?
Maine Sen. Susan Collins pulled her car off a rural road in her home state to give full expression to her own dismay at her party’s death spiral. She points to a series of problems, ranging from the absence of women in leadership positions, which sends a bad message to women—“role models matter”—to the party’s illogical emphasis on divisive issues when they should be focused on Republican strengths.
“It seems like we’ve been thrown back decades into debates most everyday people think were settled years ago. This doesn’t mean we’re disrespectful to people who hold a different point of view, but the platform seems designed to alienate a lot of moderate women. I don’t get it.”
Comments like Akin’s aren’t only embarrassing, but they divert attention and allow Democrats to change the subject. Collins is chauvinistic on her party’s economic plans, but dumbfounded by certain suicidal moves. “Tone deaf” is how she describes the 31 Senate Republicans who voted against refunding the “Violence Against Women Act,” which has been renewed for years without controversy.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK): “I join many Alaskans in finding Rep. Todd Akin’s comments incredibly offensive and I strongly encourage him to step aside… I can’t believe a guy running for the U.S. Senate but also a current congressman would make this kind of statement.”
Sen. Olympia Snow (R-ME): “Such extreme and ill-informed comments are particularly offensive to victims of sexual assault… [the comments were] repugnant and outlandish.”
“We just hand these issues to Democrats on a silver platter and they’re clapping their hands with delight. They can’t believe this! And instead we’re not focusing where my party has by far the better plans, the better approach, where President Obama has utterly failed.”
When the conversation shifts to abortion and contraception (contraception!), women begin to fear that their rights are in jeopardy. “They’re not,” says Collins, one of the party’s staunch pro-choice voices. This view is widely shared within Republican circles. Roe v. Wade isn’t going anywhere, the consensus seems to be. But fellow Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe, who is retiring after more than 30 years in office, isn’t so sure.
“Don’t underestimate the force of those views,” she says. “At one point I would have thought so, too, but now I wouldn’t minimize it.”
“At one point” refers to the mid-1980s, when Snowe organized Republican women in the Congress (there was only Nancy Kassebaum in the Senate) to meet with then-president Ronald Reagan to discuss women’s concerns. “Can you imagine that happening with a Republican president today,” she says.
Times—and things—have changed. Abortion is still front and center, yet women’s concerns, like men’s, are more centered than ever on the economy and jobs. Snowe, having just returned from a tour of the Eurozone, fears we are on the brink of disaster, tethered as we are to Europe. She urges Romney to distance himself from some of his party’s extreme positions and forcefully convey that the economy is the central issue—and that frankly we’re in a crisis.
“He’s got to reiterate that. This campaign is about the future of our economy and the future of our country ... Social issues are the Achilles’ heel of our party, but the economy is the Achilles’ heel of the Obama administration.”
“We should be sitting pretty,” says Collins, who is equally grim about the future. Instead of focusing on economic policies and pounding messages of renewal that appeal to all people, social conservatives push issues that relatively few care about at the moment. You have to have food on the table, after all, before you can start contemplating the number of angels dancing on the head of a pin. Arguments that social issues fire up the base are fine to a point, but as Collins points out, “I keep reminding them that not everybody’s base is the same and presumably we want to control the Senate. We can’t do that without winning seats in states like Maine.”
75% of Americans believe abortion should be legal in cases of rape or incest.—Gallup 2011
From the proposed GOP platform:
‘We assert the sanctity of human life and affirm that the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed.’—as reported by CNN
Former first lady Laura Bush has often told me that nations can’t survive without the full equality and participation of its women, which at a minimum should allow for differences of opinion. Does the Republican Party really think it is a nation apart, exempt from this obvious truth? Polling figures provide at least part of the answer.
A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that Obama still leads Romney among women by 51 percent to 41 percent. The gap is even greater among other demographics: African-Americans favor Obama 94 percent to 0; Latinos by 2 to 1; and voters under 35 by 52 percent to 41 percent. How long will the party of white males survive once the women (and gays and blacks and Hispanics) have left for more hospitable environs? Exactly who is left for the GOP?
Even among pro-life Americans, there is little support for the social agenda being pushed by the Republican Party’s leadership, with pro-life voters overwhelmingly holding the belief that abortion is ultimately the woman’s choice. According to a 2008 poll conducted by American Viewpoint for Republican Majority for Choice, 66 percent of self-described pro-life voters said abortion should be the choice of the woman and not the government.
More broadly, 52 percent of all Americans think abortion should be legal under certain circumstances, according to a Gallup Poll conducted in May. Furthermore, it seems people may be tiring of this whole conversation. A Bloomberg National Poll done earlier this year found that a full 77 percent believe that birth control shouldn’t be part of the national political debate.
Finally, even though the May Gallup Poll indicates that more Americans are becoming pro-life, which is surely a positive development, this doesn’t translate to mean that they support government policies further restricting abortion. In fact, at no point does a majority favor limiting access to abortion as the Republican Party seems committed to doing.
Even so, states have been busy in these vineyards. In the past two years, states have introduced a total of 2,000 reproductive health provisions, mostly restrictions, according to Planned Parenthood. While 12 states require verbal counseling or written materials before an abortion to include information on ultrasound services, both Texas and Louisiana mandate that an abortion provider perform an ultrasound (not necessarily invasive) on any woman seeking an abortion and also that the provider show and describe the ultrasound image.
54% of American adults say gay marriage is morally acceptable.—Gallup 2012
Mitt Romney: ‘I think from the beginning of my poliitcal career, I’ve made it very clear that I believe marriage should be a relationship between a man and a woman.’
Twenty-six states require that a woman seeking an abortion wait some period of time—usually 24 hours—but Utah requires 72 hours.
This is not to suggest that the only thing contributing to the expanding gender gap is the GOP’s position on reproductive issues. Not for one instant do I equate the pro-life position with being anti-female. Heaven forbid we should live in a world where no one struggles with the termination of a pregnancy. This is not a ridiculous conversation. It is, however, an often poorly executed one.
Style matters. Empathy counts. And many women—even those sympathetic to these issues—feel that Republican men aren’t listening to them, or are off on some crusade that has nothing to do with them. Raymond Arroyo, news director and lead anchor of Eternal World Television Network, may have put a finger on part of the GOP’s women problem:
“If the GOP has a ‘problem,’ it may be that their principles usually supersede their communications skills. What I mean by that is they often launch into well-intended initiatives (a virtue) giving little thought to messaging or style,” he told me by email. Perhaps an unfamiliar name to non-Catholics, Arroyo is a familiar voice to 250 million households worldwide who tune into his live news show, The World Over, on EWTN, the Global Catholic Network. “The fact is,” he says, “people are either receptive or hostile to a message based on their first impressions of the messenger. If they are repelled by a politician’s style, the message will never be heard. So many conservative pols—good as they are, smart as they are—consider things like style and presentation to be superfluous to their work, so they give it no thought.”
To whom, then, are these Republicans talking? Apparently not to women, whom they treat not as equals but as totemic and unknowable. Which is to say, they don’t “get” women. As such, they risk losing not only independents and moderates, whose votes they desperately need come November. They also risk losing their own women, who want very much to cast a ballot for smaller government, reduced deficits, and a confident, job-producing business environment, but don’t want to belong to a club that seems aggressively hostile to women and whose members can’t keep their mouths shut about issues that only reinforce the notion the Republicans are intolerant and rigid.
“I’m upset,” says Hoover, and she’s not alone.
It is noteworthy that so many Republican men are focused on women’s reproduction and issues of the hearth, while veteran Republican women leaders are riveted on the economy and jobs. Could it be that the liberal goal of reversing sex roles finally is manifesting, most vividly within the party least likely to have advanced the cause of evolution? If only men could get pregnant, then we’d really have a rollicking debate. If only ...
Meanwhile, Romney had better speak often and with conviction about his own disagreement with some of his party’s platform, or the anti-woman narrative will become so entrenched that the 2012 GOP may go down in history as having sacrificed the nation’s economy to protect the rights of human embryos. He will have to speak loudly, too, if he is to be heard over the iconic women the Democratic Party has assembled for its own convention stage—from the famous Ms. Fluke to the heads of Planned Parenthood and NARAL. The 2012 election seems to have devolved from a debate between Friedrich Hayek and John Maynard Keynes to “The Clash of the Embryos.” Perhaps the math is just too hard for either party.
How tragically ironic that the party of small government and individual liberty may have orchestrated its own defeat by insisting on some of the most invasive state policies in the history of man. Perhaps it is time for a new kind of history.
With reporting by Eliza Shapiro.