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Hurricane Akin hits GOP

Published in the Sunday Herald on August 26, 2012.

The organisers of the Republican National Convention, which begins tomorrow, made contingency plans for every conceivable kind of disaster, including an anarchist attack and the once-in-a-century hurricane that may yet strike Tampa this coming week. They did not anticipate that a single ignorant, offensive remark from a relatively unknown candidate for Senator in Missouri would throw their preparations into disarray.

Congressman Todd Akin’s baseless claim that rape cannot result in pregnancy – that “if it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down” – has put his party on the back foot, going into the carefully choreographed political showcase.

Unless Hurricane Isaac passes closer to the city than expected, it remains unlikely that Governor Rick Scott will issue an evacuation order, but the Grand Old Party is already in crisis-management mode. At a time when they should be celebrating their nominee, Republicans are instead scrambling to contain the damage from an episode that says more about the party than they would care to admit.

Akin’s comments and subsequent refusal to withdraw his candidacy, despite heavy pressure to do so from the Republican establishment, are more than an embarrassment. In an effort to force him out, the Republican National Committee cut off his funding, making it harder to win a Senate seat in Missouri that was once his for the taking. This, in turn, reduces the prospect of the party reclaiming majority control of the Senate.

More importantly, though, the longer Akin is in the spotlight, the more voters will be made aware that, on a whole slate of social issues, the Congressman is representative of his party. Its official platform, almost certain to be endorsed at the convention, contains planks about abortion, gay marriage and immigration far to the right of the American centre. It is not a binding document, but it offers a revealing glimpse at the extremism that Mitt Romney must sweep under the carpet to court independent voters this November.

The position on abortion is essentially unchanged from the last two presidential elections: the procedure should be banned, absolutely, with no exceptions, even in cases of rape, incest, or when the mother’s life is at risk. This year, though, it goes further, calling for an amendment to the US Constitution to recognise that life begins at conception. Unborn children would have all the rights and protections accorded by the Fourteenth Amendment. Their mothers would have the right to give birth. “The mean-spirited and intolerant platform represents the face of Republican politics in 2012,” summed up the New York Times in an editorial. “And unless he makes changes, it is the current face of the shape-shifting Mitt Romney.”

Romney is suffering from a pronounced “gender gap” – if the election were restricted to male voters, he would win handily, but among women, Barack Obama is trouncing him. Overall, with female voters, the President’s lead is around 10%, but this is mostly accounted for by overwhelming support from unmarried women. In a recent CBS poll, he boasted an advantage of 29% with this fast-growing demographic group.

Akin’s comments were an invitation to resurrect the “Republican war on women” theme that Democrats coined in spring, following the furore over whether health insurance plans should be required to cover contraception. Speaking at a campaign fundraising event in New York, Obama suggested that Akin’s ignorance is emblematic of the Grand Old Party’s drift from reality. “The interesting thing here is that this, this is an individual who sits on the House Committee on Science and Technology but somehow missed science class,” he said. “And it’s representative of the desire to go backwards instead of forwards and fight fights that we thought were settled 20 or 30 years ago.”

Republican efforts to woo women voters had already suffered a setback with the news that television networks will cover three nights of the convention, rather than the traditional four, meaning that Ann Romney’s headline address tomorrow night will only find an audience online. Condoleezza Rice, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley and New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez will all make high-profile speeches, although the keynote will be delivered by Governor Chris Christie, a populist bruiser from New Jersey.

The convention’s second priority, after presenting Romney as a likable everyman, a father of five and a chief executive capable of restoring American greatness, will be to introduce his running mate, Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan. Here, too, Akin is a liability. Ryan asked him to pull out of the Senate race in Missouri, both in public and during a private telephone call, but the two men’s views on reproductive rights are essentially identical. Ryan has co-sponsored 38 House bills that seek to restrict abortions.

When pressed by a Pennsylvanian radio station, Ryan stood by his absolute opposition to the procedure, with no exceptions for rape or incest. “I’m proud of my pro-life record. And I stand by my pro-life record in Congress,” he said. “But Mitt Romney will be president and he will set the policy of the Romney administration.” The vice presidential nominee has crafted an image as an economic technocrat, but he is a hardline social conservative too.

Since Republicans took control of the House of Representatives in the 2010 midterm elections, Ryan has been chairman of the House Budget Committee. In his budgets there, he has proposed eliminating all taxes on dividends, inheritances and capital gains. He has suggested limiting discretionary non-defence spending to less than 3% of GDP – a quarter of its current level – without specifying where the drastic cuts to education, transport, public safety and research will fall. Many prominent economists are sceptical of his deficit reduction claims, but to fiscal conservatives, he is a heroic truth-teller.

On the issue of Medicare, which guarantees health care for pensioners, Democrats and Republicans agree that the rising cost of healthcare (the United States spends almost twice as much per capita as the United Kingdom, with worse outcomes) means that reform is urgently needed. The Affordable Care Act is the administration’s attempt to rein in spending. Republicans say they will repeal it, given the chance. Ryan’s alternative is a voucher system, in which retirees will pay for their own health insurance, with government subsidies.

The trouble for Republicans is that Medicare is enormously popular. In a recent Pew Research Centre survey, only 34% favoured switching to a voucher system. In a New York Times poll of the swing states of Ohio, Florida and Wisconsin, even fewer supported the idea. The Ryan plan cynically promises that the changes will not affect anyone over the age of 55, in a blatant attempt to shore up support among older voters.

Campaigning in Florida with his mother at his side, Ryan said that “Medicare is there for my mom when she needs it now, and we have to keep that guarantee.” This was a set-up straight from National Republican Congressional Committee handbook, which advises candidates to “inoculate by pledging to secure and protect Medicare. Use credible third-party validators (moms or seniors).” In fact, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office has concluded that under Ryan’s plan, elderly people will be forced to choose between higher insurance premiums and inadequate health coverage.

The presidential election is still a very close race. NBC and the Wall Street Journal have Obama in front by 48% to 44%, while the Associated Press finds that Romney is just 1% behind. That the contest is so poised, despite 8.3% unemployment and persistent dissatisfaction with government (roughly two-thirds of Americans think the country is “on the wrong track” in every such survey) is often attributed to Romney’s weak interpersonal skills or lack of core convictions.

Whatever the truth of this, the Akin affair illustrates how much the GOP brand is dragging Romney down. In a CNN poll earlier this month, only 33% said they approved of the Republican party. To win the nomination, Romney was obliged to genuflect before the religious right, and in his response to Akin’s comments, he was clearly constrained by a fear of offending evangelicals.

When the story broke, the campaign released a mild statement saying that “a Romney-Ryan administration would not oppose abortion in instances of rape.” The next day, after powerful Republicans had condemned Akin, Romney told the National Review that the comments were “insulting, inexcusable and, frankly, wrong.” Only on the third day, once it was clear that Akin was being thrown overboard, did Romney call on him to withdraw. Akin has promised to skip the convention, but met with influential social conservatives in Tampa on Wednesday night.

The party’s draft platform asserts that anti-immigrant laws should be “encouraged, not attacked” in order to make life so tough for undocumented workers that they “self-deport” back to their native countries. This is a standard primary season stance for Republicans, but when Latinos make up 17% of the electorate and the number of Hispanics is growing four times faster than the general population, it is willfully self-destructive politics. The manifesto is a suicide note that Romney is obliged to sign.

Four of the last five Republican presidential nominees have been defeated, and the exception was George W. Bush, who lost the popular vote but won the White House in 2000. If that becomes five out of six in November, conservative activists will be quick to blame Romney, when they should be asking themselves if an insistence on ideological purity has made their party unelectable at a national level.