Aug. 21 (Bloomberg) -- Todd Akin’s remarks about some rapes being “legitimate,” and the ability of a woman to miraculously self-abort in those instances, have many of his fellow Republicans desperate to distinguish him from others in their party. This isn’t easy.
Akin, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives who is seeking to unseat Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri, is not an outlier. No less than Paul Ryan, the Republican candidate for vice president, shares his views. Ryan, Akin’s colleague in the House, has sponsored legislation with him that also sought to distinguish between types of rape: Instead of “legitimate,” it used the word “forcible.”
What Akin’s remarks have unleashed is a discussion in the presidential race over social issues that will be hard for Republicans to control. They were reasonably sure they could paper over the differences between Ryan and his running mate, Mitt Romney, on Medicare. On social issues, the problem is the opposite: The difference between Ryan’s views and Akin’s could fit on a Post-it note.
On Sunday, the Republicans’ chances for taking control of the Senate took a big hit. When asked on a St. Louis TV program if he would make an exception to his anti-abortion stand for rape, Akin said he would not because in those instances a woman’s body will somehow know to end the pregnancy itself.
“First of all,” he said, from “what I understand from doctors,” pregnancy as a result of rape is “really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” He went on to say that if “maybe” -- note the maybe -- the pregnancy survived, “there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be on the rapist and not attacking the child.”
The Romney-Ryan campaign has come out with escalating rejections of Akin’s remarks. Yet Ryan and Akin are in the mainstream of the prevailing House Republican view on abortion.
Not only did Akin and Ryan co-sponsor legislation redefining rape, Ryan ran for Congress as a strong pro-lifer and has a 100 percent rating from the National Right to Life Committee. “This includes support for the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act,” the committee notes. Last year Ryan and Akin were co-sponsors of the Sanctity of Human Life Act, also known as “personhood” legislation, which would give a fertilized egg the same rights as a human being and would outlaw some forms of birth control.
There’s only so much Republicans can do to cast Akin out of the party. He’s not a local gadfly who happened to win the party’s nomination for the U.S. Senate, like Christine “I Am Not a Witch” O’Donnell in Delaware or Sharron “Beware of Shariah Law in America” Angle in Nevada. Akin is a six-term member of the House in good standing who defeated two other Republicans by a comfortable margin this month.
What Akin apparently fails to understand is this: Just because colleagues like Ryan share his views, that doesn’t mean he can talk about them when there’s a presidential race going on -- especially a race in which his party’s candidate is fudging his views on the subject in hopes of attracting moderates.
Although slow to recognize he shouldn’t have blurted out his thinking, Akin had gotten religion (another subject that’s off limits) by the time he spoke with Mike Huckabee on his radio show Monday. Akin didn’t elaborate on the medical data about the frequency of pregnancies ending spontaneously in cases of rape, but he did say that “legitimate” was the wrong word to use. “I was talking about forcible rape,” he said. Legitimate “was absolutely the wrong word.”
Akin said neither the Romney campaign nor the National Republican Senatorial Committee had called and said, “Todd, I think you should drop out.” Maybe he’s mixing up his words again. Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the chairman of the NRSC, issued a statement calling on Akin to “carefully consider what is best for him, his family, the Republican Party.” And if Akin doesn’t understand that as a request to step aside, Cornyn added that his NRSC funding would dry up. Senator Scott Brown of Massachusetts, campaigning for re-election against Elizabeth Warren, also asked him to step aside, as has the relatively moderate senator from the swing state of Wisconsin, Ron Johnson.
In every Senate primary this season, except for Wisconsin, where former Governor Tommy Thompson prevailed, the most conservative candidate has won. The Tea Party is thrilled, but establishment Republicans are worried. Soft-porn-wrestling mogul Linda McMahon could lose for the second time in Connecticut.
Akin could also lose -- which is in part why Cornyn asked him to “carefully consider” his options over the next 24 hours: If he drops out of the race by Tuesday, the party can simply select a replacement. Akin may yet decide to drop out, although as of this writing his Twitter account shows no signs of surrender.
If Akin were to quit, it would certainly help the Republican cause in Missouri. Nationally, however, the debate has been joined. Last week was all about whether Romney could be hurt by Ryan’s positions on Medicare. This week, thanks to Akin, we’re discussing whether Romney could be hurt by Ryan’s positions on social issues.
(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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