The Damage Caused by Todd Akin
Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.
Let’s understand that candidates in any and every election mis-speak from time to time and Todd Akin certainly did. What is more important than his disgraceful ignorance, however, is not what he said so much as what it implies, and what the reaction to what he said suggests about both politics and policy direction. In fact, Akin was attacked from every possible quarter for making a preposterous statement on the very day that his own Party’s platform essentially endorsed the very policy he was defending. For the third time in a row, the GOP party platform will have language that does not permit abortion exceptions in the case of incest, rape, or to save the life of the mother.
On a policy level, Akin’s statement was consistent with this platform plank, except that he used an outrageous, pseudo-biological explanation about rape to try to minimize this position. The GOP’s hard line, extreme, policy position demonstrates once again its determination to stake itself on the clear right wing of its party, regardless of what Governor Romney’s earlier positions or even those he articulated in the primary; although such more moderate positions were not previously supported by Paul Ryan.)
There are two dimensions to this slip which ought to be as much the focus of discussion as the Akin’s slip-up; the substantive issues which motivated his response and how people responded to it. The two in fact are tied together and say much about where the Republican Party has decided to conduct this campaign.
On the one hand, Akin, who won the primary, has every right to remain in the race, but his decision to do so draws into serious question his qualifications for the position. Akin would not be the first nominated candidate to resign due to scandal or disgrace. This has occurred at all political levels in U.S. history. Senator Tom Eagleton withdrew his nomination as George McGovern’s running mate in 1972 because of disclosures about his medical history, but in 1984 Geraldine Ferraro stayed on as Walter Mondale’s vice-presidential choice even after she became the target of extensive questions and scrutiny about her and her family’s finances. (Both of these were instances of personal failures or illegalities—not to minimize them—but they were not national policy issues.)
In American politics politicians are not necessarily tied to ideology, but they are connected to a local, state-wide, and national organization. They require support from all three levels, especially financial support. To assume that one can or even should put oneself ahead of one’s party, as Akin has done, only demonstrates further his lack of understanding of how to play the game.
On the other hand, the fact that Party leaders—at all three levels—hesitated for a second in demanding that he step down shows the extent to which Tea Partyers and the right-wing have totally intimidated any moderate voice in the Republican Party. The Party leadership’s hesitation and their need to protect Akin transcended their need to do the right thing, instinctively. The insult to women and to the intelligence of all citizens—regardless of how one feels about abortion—should have brought an immediate reaction from Romney down through the entire Party. While Akin may still resign, the damage he did to the GOP’s efforts in Missouri may be irreversible. In addition, the damage the Republicans may have done to themselves, especially in the eyes of moderate women voters and Independents nationally, may be decisive.