The last thing number-crunching Mitt Romney wanted to talk about in the American presidential campaign was a hot-button social issue like abortion. But he’s been drawn into that storm—even as a real storm threatens to make havoc of his party’s convention next week. By J. BROOKS SPECTOR.
Over the past several years, socially conservative, right-wing Republican politicians and televangelists have taken apparent delight in describing natural (and some unnatural) disasters like Hurricane Katrina and the Japanese tsunami/earthquake/nuclear hat trick as demonstrations of biblical-style, divine retribution visited upon a world of sinners and infidels. So what does that say, and what would people like preachers Pat Robertson and John Hagee say, about the possibility that a full-blown hurricane is threatening to overwhelm Tampa, Florida, and next week’s Republican National Convention? The storm is brewing even as Mitt Romney is about to receive the party’s presidential nomination from a party poised to adopt a platform that takes a hard, unrelenting line on abortion rights.
The whole thing is beginning to have interesting similarities to a wicked, twisted version of the film Key Largo. If readers do not instantly recall the plot of that 1940s Bogart/Bacall/EG Robinson classic, in a nutshell, a lonely outsider comes into a Florida sport-fishing town just as a mafia kingpin and his entourage arrive. As the fates would have it, they are trapped in a small hotel because of a ferocious hurricane. Bogey, the stranger, has to defeat Edward G Robinson’s mafia character so that he can save the girl, Lauren Bacall, and her wheel chair-bound father.
In this week’s true-life drama, Romney is the stranger (OK, OK, he doesn’t quite look like Bogey, but he is pretty thin and his hair is combed back) and the nomination could be Bacall. Except that as Romney comes to town with a hurricane bearing down, it is Romney’s own side that is causing the problems. So much so, in fact, that Romney’s opponent has barely needed to say much over the past couple of weeks, except to point out what Romney’s own Republicans have been up to and what they have been saying to one another, and then mention some other code words like Medicare, student loans, Osama bin Laden and taxes.
All this comes after weeks of pounding from Democrats over his tax payments, tax returns and tax proposals.
In the state of Missouri, Todd Akin, a very conservative congressman with some peculiar ideas about sex and who clearly wasn’t listening in his ninth grade health and hygiene classes, won the right to face Democratic incumbent Senator Claire McCaskill after a three-way race among other Republicans. Beating McCaskill has been seen as the best pathway to a Republican majority in the Senate, and McCaskill was rated as virtually on life-support as a candidate. At least until Akin opened his mouth on a Sunday talk show to explore his peculiar insights into biology.
According to Akin, the mysterious reproductive organs of a woman who is the victim of a “legitimate rape” (whatever that may mean) would spontaneously refuse to allow the coming together of a sperm and egg cell to form an embryo. Or, if one understands his analysis: No embryo, no foetus; no foetus, no children of rape; no babies from rape, thereby no need to allow legal opportunity for any abortions for victims of rape. Click those ruby slippers together again, guy.
The New Republic magazine (a liberal magazine, sure, but it does great writing) explained Akin’s wacko ideas come from a particularly iconoclastic, political activist doctor. “Rep. Todd Akin’s insistence that woman cannot become pregnant through rape did not come from nowhere. Principally, it’s an idea that comes from a man by the name of Dr. John C. Willke—a general practitioner who was president of the National Right to Life Committee for about a decade. Willke spent much of the ’80s spreading the demonstrable falsehood that women have sure-fire biological defences against rape. And on Monday, when his name started coming up, he wasn’t backing down.”
It didn’t take much time for the piling-on to commence. Columnists, reporters, Democratic operatives, strategists and candidates were on to it quickly. Then it was Republican strategists and spin doctors as well, calling on Akin to quit the race and “take one for the team” so their party could scruff around to find an alternative candidate in Missouri.
Eventually, Republican campaign fund organizers like Karl Rove pulled their funds from Akin’s campaign and even the ever-malleable Romney announced he disagreed with Akin’s new biology lessons. Akin finally went on television to plead for his political life, explaining that he shouldn’t be pilloried for one egregiously stupid statement and that there was no way he was going to betray the good people of Missouri by dropping out of the race.
Observing the resulting melee, the AP reported that “Republicans Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan found themselves dragged into a debate Wednesday over hot-button social issues and answering for differences between their personal positions on abortion, just days before a national convention aimed at showing a unified Republican party…. The questions over abortion overshadowed events by Romney and Ryan in the battleground states of Iowa, North Carolina and Virginia—three states which Obama carried in 2008—ahead of next week’s Republican convention in Tampa, Florida.”
In this ongoing soap opera, there are four key problems for Romney. First, of course, is that the longer Akin is in the Missouri senatorial race, the harder it becomes for Republicans to make a credible contest for control of the Senate. And so far, at least, Akin has absolutely ruled out dropping out of the race.
Then there is the fact Akin’s statement allows Democrats to point to all of his prior statements on behalf of his rigid opposition to abortion rights in any form. From there, they can point to the fact Romney’s vice presidential running mate, Paul Ryan, took many of the exact same legislative positions over the years as a congressional colleague of Akin. That, in turn, allows Democratic strategists and voters to draw a connecting line neatly from Akin to Ryan to Romney (even though Ryan has now been at pains to say Romney is the head of their ticket and his position goes, even if he, Ryan, disagrees with it).
Moreover, given continuing strong national support for access to abortion as a constitutionally protected right, at least in the circumstances of incest, rape or in threats to the health of the mother, this intra-party squabble and inane statements coming from people like Akin allows Democrats to enhance and solidify their support among female voters—even further than it already has reached. In an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released Wednesday for example, President Obama already leads Romney among women by 51% to 41 %.
Further, while Romney has been trying to get a word in edgewise on his preferred economic theme, the Republican Party’s convention platform committee has been up to mischief as well, deciding on a platform plank that effectively opposes abortion, pretty much across the board. Just like Akin.
This virtually guarantees some tussling at the convention over the wording of the abortion plank, or at the very least definitively guaranteeing every commentator, journalist, activist (and Democratic supporter) will try to punch up this position and insist Romney and Ryan explain how they can support their own campaign platform if they disagree with it—and with each other. This will help keep a particularly divisive segment of the larger “culture war”, the so-called Republican “war on women”, alive through the convention and beyond. And all despite the fact that there is practically no chance in this universe congress will be able to muster enough votes to pass such legislation (let alone a constitutional amendment that has even more difficult hoops to jump through).
The final problem for Romney, of course, is that as long as their multi-dimensional bun-fight within—and without—his party continues, it crowds out space or interest for reporting on or conversation about Romney’s preferred issues. These, of course, are the economy, the future of the federal budget and major changes in various social welfare programs. Instead, the news now is the Republican abortion squabble, all the time, every time. And there is no interest on the part of Democrats, much of the media, or many parts of the NGO community, to let up focusing on the Republicans’ abortion dilemma. There is even among some Republicans pressure not to let up on this issue until those who are totally and completely opposed to abortion in all circumstances finally win the day within the party.
A further challenge for Romney and the Republicans has been the decision by the major television networks to forego airing most of the convention (and to behave similarly with the Democrats the week following). The ostensible reason is that the convention’s outcome is already a foregone conclusion—no clash equals no drama equals no audience. And no audience means little interest by advertisers to sponsor it in place of reruns of popular sitcoms. As things stand now, the whole three days of the convention will get about four hours or so of prime time television. Even Ann Romney’s remarks saluting her hubby will not be broadcast live.
This decision has Republicans seething, but it is hard to argue that the convention will be compelling television viewing. (Of course, if there is an out-and-out donnybrook over abortion, some Republicans may be happy the TV cameras are not running and that people are on vacation, or that the whole thing is locked down because of Hurricane Isaac.)
While all this has been going on, the Obama forces have continued on their way with their niche-demographics strategy. While the Republican’s abortion fight has been carried on in full view of the nation (at least those not on the beach for one last week of vacation), Democrats have been reminding women what they say is at stake should Mitt Romney and his new friend Todd Akin win. Same with the elderly and Medicare; same with university students and proposed changes in student loan programs as part of the earlier Ryan budget plan; and so forth.
Democrats have apparently made the decision that this time around, unlike the truly national-style campaign they ran in 2008, they will fight this election one demographic slice at a time, and that they will concentrate their advertising spend in the most important battleground states. By some analysts’ estimates, therefore, the election ultimately will come down to around 50,000 still-undecided voters in a few of those battleground states, Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Virginia and Wisconsin.
Next week, finally, is the Republican convention. Will they succeed in burying the hatchet on abortion long enough to rally enthusiastically around Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan? Will Romney find a way to frame his budgetary vision in such fashion that it makes a gripping connection beyond his intimate circle of advisors? Will Paul Ryan’s selection, once he is truly introduced to the nation, help move Romney’s popular support upward? For all of these, tune in next week as this writer stays up very late and gets up very early to watch the speeches, read the commentary and follow the blogosphere—and then try to make sense of it for DM readers. Then the same thing happens the following week for the Democrats. Lots of coffee awaits. DM
Photo: U.S. Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney (L) and vice-presidential candidate, U.S. Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI), hold a town hall meeting campaign stop in Manchester, New Hampshire August 20, 2012. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
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