Frank Rich on the National Circus: Banishing Akin Won’t Cure the Stag Party

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Photo: Jeff Roberson/AP

Todd Akin rebuffed pressure from Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, Karl Rove, and pretty much the entire GOP Establishment, refusing to exit his Senate race against Claire McCaskill after saying that "legitimate rape" rarely leads to pregnancy. Akin has been ahead in the polls. Is he delusional that he can still win?
Assuming he doesn't get out after all, perhaps after extracting some back-room favors, there's a chance he could still win. Missouri is the generally red state that gave us John Ashcroft. Akin’s base has now been energized by his martyrdom at the hands of the despised GOP Establishment (or what’s left of it). He still has strong support from both the national and local family values Ayatollahs, led by Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council. That the national GOP and Rove’s PACs have pulled their money out of the Akin race may prove meaningless. He can recruit his own billionaire sugar daddies, starting with Foster Friess, the Santorum bankroller who “joked” earlier this year that “gals” might best practice birth control by putting aspirin between their knees. And other money may find its way to Akin too this fall if that one seat is really all that stands in the way of Republican control of the Senate. While the Beltway commentariat may now be busy declaring Akin “unelectable” (as the Cook Political Report put it), let’s not forget that much of this same crowd prematurely declared the death of the tea party. The truth is that Akin is typical of today’s GOP, not some outlier; only a handful of the House’s 241 Republican members differ at all from his hard-line stand on abortion. And on women’s rights, the Senate caucus is barely different: Only one of that chamber’s 47 GOP members voted against the so-called Blunt Amendment, another Republican jihad against women’s health care this year. (The one exception was Olympia Snowe, who is leaving the Senate.) Akin's sin in the eyes of GOP grandees has nothing to do with his standard-issue hard-right views — it's that he gave away the game by so candidly and vividly exposing how extreme those views are in an election year.

After Akin's comments, the Romney campaign announced that its candidate wouldn't oppose abortions in instances of rape. In the past Romney has expressed his support for the Human Life Amendment, which would ban all abortions even in the case of rape. Does his latest policy evolution serve any purpose? And can he plausibly distance himself from Akin?
No he can’t. The only purpose this transparent maneuver serves is to remind voters all over again of what a flip-flopper Romney is, especially on the issue of abortion. The only way Mitt can distance himself from Akin is to distance himself from his own running mate, since Ryan has been Akin’s congressional comrade in arms in trying to demean rape victims and deny them their rights. Akin’s coinage of “legitimate rape” this week is just a variation on the equally bogus and nefarious term — “forcible rape” — that he and Ryan used in their House bill. 

Despite the Romney campaign's statement, the GOP platform committee approved an abortion plank that has no rape exemption. (It's the same plank the party has used since 2004.) Between Akin, the platform, and Representative Steve King's comment this week that he was "not aware" of any pregnancies caused by statutory rape or incest, are we witnessing a second eruption of the Republican War Against Women storyline you wrote about in March?
The Republican War Against Women never went away — it hasn’t gone away for a quarter century. But in presidential years, the party tries to stuff it in the closet so women in particular and moderate voters in general won’t be frightened off. After the earlier eruptions this year — the Congressman Darrell Issa convening a men-only panel on birth control in the House, Limbaugh calling the Georgetown Law student Sandra Fluke a “slut,” Romney vowing to cut all federal support of Planned Parenthood — GOP Establishment types predicted that the ruckus would soon fade and that the little women of America would stop worrying their pretty little heads about it. “Nobody thinks it will matter in a couple of months,” was how the former GOP congressman and Romney supporter Vin Weber put it in March.  But because there actually is a GOP war on women, it will keep erupting. Let’s not forget that the chairman of the platform panel that just ratified the absolutist abortion plank is none other than Bob McDonnell, the Virginia governor who earlier this year endorsed a bill subjecting women seeking abortions to a state-mandated invasive vaginal ultrasound test. (Does this procedure meet the Ryan-Akin definition of “forcible rape”?) And Romney is no less committed to the war on women than all the rest. He has also called for the elimination of Title X, the federal program that provides birth control, pap smears, and breast-cancer screening, among other preventative health care, to poor women who otherwise could not afford it. Yet somehow the GOP still believes post-Akin that its war on women can be stuffed back into the closet. It’s revealing that on the morning after Akin announced his decision to stay in the race, both Murdoch papers, the Wall Street Journal and New York Post, buried the news in their inside pages and ran no editorials on the subject. But wishing won’t make this go away.

Politico broke a story on Sunday that a group of Republican congressmen, their staffers, and families had gone for a rowdy dip in the Sea of Galilee on an official trip to Israel last summer, with a representative from Kansas, Kevin Yoder, swimming in the buff. Is this a mini-scandal worth caring about?
What interests me about it is that two of the three founders of the GOP’s self-styled “Young Guns” — Eric Cantor and Kevin McCarthy — were on that junket, if not skinny dipping themselves. It’s also interesting that they kept this mini-scandal secret for a year. It makes you wonder what else happened on this junket or other outings by this cohort. Perhaps the third founding “Young Gun” — that would be Paul Ryan — can tell us.

In an NBC/WSJ poll released last night, only 12 percent of registered voters said they approved of the job Congress is doing, tying the all-time low. And most of the survey was taken before the Akin comments and the Sea of Galilee news. If you were John Boehner, how would you be feeling right now?
Probably that I need a smoke. As Chuck Todd of NBC News has put it, loathing of Congress is the one issue around which “this country has come together.” And given the Akin–Galilee developments, 12 percent may prove a high water mark; Congress could yet hit an approval rating to rival Al Qaeda.  But this is a far bigger immediate problem for Romney than Boehner. By putting Ryan on the ticket, Mitt can’t escape his association with the Republican House, and next week many of those congressmen will descend into a Tampa full of strip clubs and other temptations where dress is optional. 

Both the Obama and Romney camps have recently been addressing the subject of religion more explicitly. The candidates discussed their faiths with the National Cathedral's magazine and Romney released an ad that explicitly targets "values voters." (Romney, of course, still won't say the word "Mormon.") What do you make of it, especially in Romney's case?
Actually, Romney took a press pool to church last weekend, and there is talk he will finally address his faith more directly at the convention. He’s being forced to do so by polls showing that he remains an aloof mystery man to too many voters. If he does talk forthrightly about his religion, he will have to defend church policies that have secular implications. Women are second-class citizens in the Church of Latter-Day Saints, where the entire top brass is male and where women are forbidden to assume leadership roles open to Mormon boys starting at age 12. Mormons are also major financial contributors to anti-gay-rights initiatives, most notoriously the successful Prop 8 campaign in California. Was Romney among those donors? That’s yet another question that might be answered if we saw his tax returns.

The Romney-Ryan pairing is the first major party ticket history without a Protestant. Does this mean the evangelical vote no longer matters? Or that evangelicals no longer care about electing other evangelicals?
In the radical GOP we have now, ideology trumps religion just as it trumps science (witness the junk-science purveyor Akin’s sinecure on the House science committee). Ryan’s ascendance to the national ticket was final confirmation, if any were needed, that the party’s patron saint is now Ayn Rand.