Do all these leading Republicans and conservatives want Todd Akin to drop out because of the potential balance of the next Senate? Oh sure, that’s one reason. But it isn’t the main one. Akin’s views, and his coziness on these matters with House colleague Paul Ryan, threaten to do enormous damage to the GOP ticket. A “well-wired Republican” told Mike Allen for his Wednesday Playbook that Akin “could even put Missouri into the Obama column.” That’s a reach, probably. But this much is true: to a greater extent, of course, if Akin stays in, but to some extent even if he leaves, he helps turn this election from an economic referendum on Barack Obama to a cultural referendum on the Troglocons.
Rarely is the door flung open for the rest of us as it has been by Akin to the kind of mystical and reactionary drool that passes for theology on today’s right. The average American, if she’s paying even a little attention this week, is learning that it is not merely the case that Republicans oppose abortion rights as a general matter. She is grasping, and probably for the first time, even though it’s been official GOP doctrine for years, that the party wants victims of incest and rape to be forced to carry those fetuses to term. She is learning that many in the party and the movement seem to think, astonishingly, that there is truly bad rape and rape that really isn’t such an imposition.
And if she’s paying a bit more than casual attention, she is figuring out that Akin is not some crazy outlier but indeed a comrade in arms of the party’s vice-presidential nominee. She’ll have read about the bill Akin and Ryan gleefully helped sponsor that made the rape distinction. And if the Democrats and the women’s groups do their jobs as they should in the coming days and weeks, she may be left to ponder that the man who’ll be a heartbeat away from the presidency once implied that women could be jailed for getting abortions. “If it’s illegal, it’s illegal” is how Ryan described the appropriate punishment for women who receive abortions in states that would make the practice illegal in Ryan’s dream world. The line richly deserves to enter the public lexicon, in the manner of “read my lips” and “I did not have sex with that woman.”
And, if the Democrats and women’s groups do their jobs, the average American will be informed that the man at the top of the ticket, whatever glib nonsense he sputters today, has long supported the idea of a “personhood” amendment to the Constitution, which could ban not just abortions but in-vitro fertilization and some types of birth control. How reactionary is this? The voters of Mississippi—Mississippi!—voted such an amendment down by 16 points last year once they had a chance to ruminate on its implications.
Call it Trogloconservatism—the rise of caveman politics. These views expressed by Akin, held by Ryan, and endorsed by Romney, are not anywhere close to being on the normal political scale. I think many women, and not a few men, would find these positions not merely objectionable but shocking.
And here is an important point. These are the kinds of issues and views that will inevitably take up a lot of oxygen. And rightly so. There’s a reason our debates on reproductive issues are so heated. These issues are personal, a lot more so than Medicare or marginal tax rates. And the chance that Roe v. Wade might be overturned someday soon is real enough, and the prospect of a Romney presidency, with possible liberal high court retirements in the offing, increases that chance. If Roe doesn’t exist, the states will become the laboratories of these crackpot ideas. If voters are made to understand all this, we are looking at a gender gap of at least 20 points. (It was 14 percent in Obama’s favor in 2008.) A 20-point deficit among the people who’ll make up probably 53 percent of the electorate is something Republicans ought to be very worried about indeed.
And it is up to Romney to sort all this out and draw some lines in the sand here. (If you’re not laughing at that very thought, you haven’t been paying much attention to Romney’s character.) His campaign says a Romney administration will honor rape and incest exceptions. But why should we believe that? The platform says otherwise. And on what issue—name one, please, just one!—has Romney shown any disagreement with right-wing orthodoxy in the past two years? At the very least, Democrats must put him on the spot, make him denounce and deny his own party’s platform. George W. Bush, whom conservatives trusted, could get away with doing that in 2004 over civil unions, which he embraced despite platform language to the contrary. But they don’t trust Romney.
So…an economic referendum on Obama? Yes, the election will be that, in part. That’s inevitable. But this is inevitable, too: the Republican Party has become so extreme in these last four years on so many fronts that there was simply no way we were going to go through a presidential election without the party and its new standard bearer being forced either to explain and defend that extremism or deny it. And that may be this election’s real referendum—on whether the Republican Party even qualifies anymore as a “legitimate,” to use Akin’s adjective, force in this country.