August 23, 2012 / 7:31 PM / 5 years ago

Todd Akin versus the GOP leadership

(The views expressed are the author’s own and not those of Reuters)

By Nicholas Wapshott

Todd Akin has a history of telling it like he sees it. What he exactly meant by “legitimate rape” we may never find out. But we do know he believes life begins at intercourse and that a woman who has become pregnant by a rapist should go full term. He thinks abortions should be outlawed, full stop. In fact, he is so violently against abortion he supported the 1st Missouri Volunteers, a militia group linked to those who advocated violence against abortion doctors. He’s against teaching young people how to avoid becoming pregnant. A lot of Americans hold similar beliefs, and they are frustrated that candidates Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan will not openly campaign on such issues.

Akin also believes that Americans should be required to show ID before voting, and he backed such a change in the law in Missouri, even though there has only been one case of voter fraud in the state -- in 1936. He also thinks people should be carded before they receive Medicare and Social Security. He hopes to be elected senator by the people of Missouri, though he is against senators being directly elected, as the 17th Amendment demands, and thinks senators should instead revert to being chosen by state representatives.

He’s against most gay rights and would deny “homosexual unions the same legal privileges that civil government affords to traditional marriage and family life.” He thinks keeping a register of convicted sex offenders is an invasion of privacy. Again, these are views many grassroots Republicans hold, and they cannot understand why such topics have been declared off-limits by the GOP leadership. They want more people like Akin. They want to send them all to Washington to turn back the tide of liberalism.

The Republican leadership, however, is aghast at Akin’s truth-telling. GOP leaders were relieved when, after defeating half a dozen Tea Party types, the bland, pragmatic, non-ideological Romney became their candidate. When it became plain the Republican bedrock had little enthusiasm for Romney and suspected his true commitment to conservative causes, the leadership was pleased with his sidekick-like choice of Paul Ryan as running mate. Despite voting for Obama’s trillion-dollar stimulus plan and pleading for stimulus funds for his own constituents, Ryan freely drops the names of Tea Party saints like Friedrich Hayek and Ayn Rand. For a while, the rank and file were appeased.

But though the GOP’s social conservative base has been briefly lifted by Akin’s candor about rape and abortion, it has been appalled by the party leadership’s demands that their hero stand down. Fully aware of his colorful views, Republicans in Missouri picked Akin fair and square in the senatorial primary, and they want to vote for him in November. Meanwhile, the GOP leadership is certain that by expressing his long-held views he is sure to lose.

GOP leaders mostly kept to themselves what they really think about the party supporters who get them elected, though in a rare, candid lapse House Speaker John Boehner admitted he thought of them as “knuckle-draggers.” (His groveling recant was a collector’s item. Boehner’s deputy chief of staff made the statement: “The Speaker said … Paul Ryan is not a knuckle-dragger. He did not say those who opposed TARP are knuckle-draggers, and he does not believe TARP opponents are knuckle-draggers. He did not say Tea Partiers are knuckle-draggers, and he does not believe Tea Partiers are knuckle-draggers.”) The GOP establishment has been hoist once more by its own petard.

Republican leaders need to harness the energy and enthusiasm of Tea Party activists and social conservatives if they are going to continue living the good life in Washington. So they surreptitiously encourage the birthers, the homophobes, the racists and the misogynists into their midst by sneaking dog-whistle phrases into their speeches. A great deal of meaning is crammed into Romney’s apparently innocuous use of a simple trigger word like “foreign.”

This is not liberal invention. Reagan adviser Lee Atwater came clean in a 1981 interview that was cited in the New York Times Opinion pages in 2006. “You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger,'” he said. “By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’. That hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff.”

David Gergen, another Reagan adviser, explained how the race card is played against Obama. “There are certain kinds of signals … code for, ‘He’s uppity.’ ‘He ought to stay in his place.’ Everybody gets that who is from a Southern background.”

Party leaders are playing a dangerous game. It’s all very well to ride a tiger, so long as you don’t fall off. But when you do, as you surely will, you are just as sure to be eaten alive.

Nicholas Wapshott's "Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics" is published by W.W. Norton. Follow @nwapshott at Twitter.

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