If you’re a causal observer of politics—and/or if you hate the GOP—it seems like Representative Todd “Legitimate Rape” Akin couldn’t have picked a better time to inspire a torrent of disgust and contempt for Republicans by making such superstitious, sexist, and stupid remarks about rape, conception, and abortion.
A public fight about social issues is like manna from heaven for Democrats, who haven’t been able to pull away from Romney in the polls and are more confident talking about the “war on women” than the economy. Culture-war controversy puts Romney—a squish and a technocrat who just wants this stuff to go away—far back on his heels.
Or so you might think. Actually, Akin’s swan dive into the dunk tank is the greatest gift to Romney that the squishy, technocratic candidate could ask for, provided Mitt continues the decisive, independent streak he began by choosing the chummy Paul Ryan over his advisors’ preference, the human mayo on white bread sandwich named Tim Pawlenty. As odd as it sounds, Romney’s choice of Ryan—the darling of conservative rubes and panjandrums alike—could augur an out-of-nowhere, full frontal assault on the most embarrassing and offensive elements of the Republican party.
Consider: In today’s post-Bush, post-Tea Party era, the Republicans are at their weakest institutionally in a generation (since the resignation of Nixon), and at their most ideologically vulnerable in a hundred years (since Taft vs. Roosevelt). Any leader with real power in the party could put his stamp on the poor, stumbling, gaffe-spewing beast that the GOP has become. In any election cycle, the presidential nominee tends to be the figure who can shape the party most. In this cycle, with no other potential leaders in his party (remember the disastrous primary?), Romney’s opportunity to play that role is magnified out of all historical proportion. Ronald Reagan would dream of such political putty in his hands.
The rap on Romney is that in addition to being a robot who kills factory workers or whatnot, he’s also weak. There’s no way, the line goes, that he could ever rule the Republicans with an iron fist, or force them to dance to his awkward, distant, Mormon tune. On closer inspection, however, Romney has stuck fanatically to his guns what’s been most important to him. He hasn’t done more pandering on social issues than absolutely necessary. He won’t appease the base by slamming the health care system he created as governor of Massachusetts. And, again, he picked Paul Ryan, not a “safe” choice but a guy he enjoys working with. He's pro-business, focused on the economy, and tolerates the wackier wings in his party only because he needs their vote.
There’s no mystery about the way Romney—and more broadly, Team Romney—feels about Republicans like Mike Huckabee, who has recently rushed so disgustingly and divisively to Todd Akin’s defense. Neither Romney nor his people want the Huckabees of the world to flex any muscle in the party. Romney is far more at home with the other “crazy” Republicans like the Pauls—they might want to go back on the gold standard, but at least there’s no chance they will start screaming about Jesus and rape for no reason. Ron Paul’s people are making a scene at the convention as I’m writing this—they’re literally jumping up and down and yelling about how much they hate Romney—but Mitt can deal with that. The worst those people will do is peel off and vote for Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson. Akin and his ilk, meanwhile, have the potential to link the Republican Party and the word “rape” permanently in the fickle minds of undecided voters.
Romney isn’t a fool. He knows that today’s social conservatives—whatever can or should be said about that thing called “social conservatism”—are political hemlock, and he knows that libertarian-ish Republicanism (which isn't, for instance, totally anathema to young people) is key to scraping out a win against Barack Obama and future opponents on the left. Mitt is far too much a management consultant type to satisfy libertarians in their bones, but he’s less terrifying to them than social conservatives like Marco Rubio or Rick Santorum. They have to hold their noses and vote for him, or leave the party.
From the standpoint of its traditional ideology, the GOP needs a purge of its corporatist wing most of all. But if you want to win elections in the 21st century, other purges have to come first. In that context, the calls for Akin to get out of his senate race and get replaced by someone saner make perfect sense. Don’t be stunned if Romney tries to move his party away from the anti-gay, anti-sex, anti-abortion faction. If he wants to turn around the country like he says he does, he’s going to have to turn around his party first.
Other stuff about the Republicans from James Poulos: