Bizarre case of spontaneous political combustion reported in Missouri
Rep. Todd Akin, the Republican candidate challenging Claire McCaskill for Senate in Missouri, threw away a double-digit lead with an astonishing 30-second sound bite on Sunday.
When St. Louis reporter Charles Jaco asked if Akin, who is strongly pro-life, would support abortion in cases of rape, Akin replied: “Well you know, people always want to make it as one of those things where how do you slice this particularly tough, sort of ethical question. It seems to me first of all, from what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But, let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work, or something. I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be on the rapist and not attacking the child.”
(Emphasis mine.) It’s hard to imagine a worse blunder. In the span of a few moments, Akin reinvigorated McCaskill’s flagging campaign, put himself on the national stage as a figure of ridicule, handed a big can of fuel to the Democrats’ dopey “War on Women” narrative, and gave the media a durable response to criticism of outrageous Democrat statements. Joe Biden just became the B-side to Akin’s Top 40 hit, “Legitimate Rape.”
McCaskill quickly responded via Twitter: “As a woman and former prosecutor who handled hundreds of rape cases, I’m stunned by Rep. Akin’s comments about victims this morning.” (Note: verbiage expanded from Twitter shorthand.)
Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign quickly distanced itself from Akin’s remarks, saying that both Romney and Paul Ryan disagreed with his statement, and “would not oppose abortion in instances of rape.” There has been some talk of replacing Akin with a different candidate – a move that would need to be made quickly, as the deadline is coming tomorrow.
Akin’s comments were factually incorrect – embracing medical superstition to a degree not seen since Rep. Michelle Bachmann went overboard in her attack on Gardasil, combined with the weird “categories of rape” language celebrities like Whoopi Goldberg employed in defense of director Roman Polanski. There are, sadly, plenty of pregnancies resulting from rape – about 30,000 per year, according to research from the Journal of American Obstetrics and Gynecology cited at the Washington Post.
Akin released a lengthy statement of clarification after controversy erupted around his remarks, claiming that he “misspoke” when making his “off-the-cuff remarks”:
“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.
“But I also believe that this election is about a wide-range of very important issues, starting with the economy and the type of country we will be leaving our children and grandchildren. We’ve had 42 straight months of unacceptably high unemployment, trillion dollar deficits, and Democratic leaders in Washington who are focused on growing government, instead of jobs. That is my primary focus in this campaign and while there are those who want to distract from that, knowing they cannot defend the Democrats’ failed economic record of the last four years, that will continue to be my focus in the months ahead.”
The Daily Caller posted a longer excerpt from the Akin-Jaco interview, noting that the widely-circulated 30-second clip omits the larger context of Akin’s remarks about the sanctity of life.
But these efforts at clarification and context don’t erase what Akin actually said. Even if he was a victim of selective, unfair quotation, he produced thirty seconds of very damaging verbiage for his opponents to use – a mistake Republican candidates cannot afford to make.
He’s not really being taken out of context, though. He clearly stated that he is under the impression “legitimate rape” does not result in pregnancy, because women’s bodies somehow automatically neutralize the effects of sexual assault. He claimed to have received this impression from talking to doctors. Using the phrase “legitimate rape” clearly implies he thinks less serious situations have been inaccurately classified as rape. These are not minor slips of the tongue.
Nothing in his controversial statements implies that he’s soft on rapists, so most of Akin’s “clarification” is beside the point. He could have made his case about defending the lives of children conceived through rape without his ignorant effort to portray such pregnancies as incredibly rare. After all, the frequency of rape pregnancies does not dilute the underlying principle. The life of the child would be no less important, and the question of abortion in rape cases no less searing, if there was only one such pregnancy per year. Beginning the pro-life argument with an offhand, factually inaccurate dismissal – “Doctors tell me this hardly ever happens anyway” – weakens the argument, rather than bolstering it.
This is not something that can be spun away by pointing out that certain liberals have a history of dismissing certain sexual assaults as insignificant – although it’s fair enough to point out the rank hypocrisy of Polanski apologists affecting high dudgeon about Todd Akin. It’s also not good enough to point out that President Obama’s career survived his defense of outright infanticide. Everyone knows there are different rules for Democrats in general, and Obama in particular. And even if there weren’t, pointing out past outrages from others to excuse current errors is childish.
It’s possible that Akin will survive and triumph over McCaskill, who is deeply unpopular in Missouri. That doesn’t excuse what he said, either on logical grounds or its political merits. This is not a season for “misspeaking” by candidates who need yet another painful lesson that Republicans can’t get away with sloppy campaigns run by not-ready-for-prime-time candidates. And after insisting that Democrats be held accountable for the plain meaning of their words, there isn’t much room for conservatives to use “context” as White-Out to erase uncomfortable sentences from speeches and interviews.
Update: Calls for Akin to step aside have now been issued by Republican Senators Scott Brown of Massachusetts and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin.
Brown said in a statement: “As a husband and father of two young women, I found Todd Akin’s comments about women and rape outrageous, inappropriate and wrong. There is no place in our public discourse for this type of offensive thinking. Not only should he apologize, but I believe Rep. Akin’s statement was so far out of bounds that he should resign the nomination for US Senate in Missouri.”
Johnson said via Twitter: “Todd Akin’s statements are reprehensible and inexcusable. He should step aside today for the good of the nation.”
Update: Appearing on Mike Huckabee’s radio show Monday, Akin once again apologized for his comments, saying “I made that statement in error. Rape is never legitimate. It is an evil act. I used the wrong words in the wrong way.” He also said “I do know that people become pregnant from rape.”
He said he will not resign his candidacy, and has not been asked to do so by either the Romney campaign or the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “We’re going to take this thing forward, and by the grace of God win this race,” he told Huckabee.
Update: Well, the National Republican Senatorial Committee might not have explicitly asked Akin to step aside, but its chairman, Senator John Cornyn of Texas, suggested that it might be time for Akin to do some long, hard thinking about his political future: “Congressman Akin’s statements were wrong, offensive, and indefensible. I recognize that this is a difficult time for him, but over the next twenty-four hours, Congressman Akin should carefully consider what is best for him, his family, the Republican Party, and the values that he cares about and has fought for throughout his career in public service.”
Update: Politico is reporting that Crossroads GPS, a major conservative organization, is pulling out of the Missouri Senate race and leaving Akin for dead. Crossroads had planned to run ads this week in Missouri, but it has canceled all of them. I’m also hearing reports that Sen. Cornyn has informed Akin that the NRSC will not spend money on his campaign, if he remains in the race.