Republicans have spent the last several months arguing about the lessons of the 2012 election with both establishment types and grass roots activists mixing it up on a variety of issues. But if there was one conclusion that surely everyone in the party agreed upon it was that GOP candidates and officials needed to avoid mentioning rape, especially when discussing their opposition to abortion. The spectacular idiocy of Missouri senatorial candidate Todd Akin—who publicly doubted that women could become pregnant as a result of rape—didn’t just transform his opponent Claire McCaskill from a certain loser to an easy winner and sink Indiana Republican Richard Mourdock, when the latter said something not quite as foolish. It also allowed Democrats to trash all Republicans as Neanderthal nitwits seeking to abuse women.
But apparently Arizonan Republican Representative Trent Franks didn’t get the memo. Franks demonstrated that yesterday when he claimed during a Judiciary Committee debate that the incidence of pregnancy from rape is “very low.” But Franks had to repeat the assertion even in a later clarification before he realized what he had done. With a single phrase, Franks had handed Democrats on the committee and elsewhere a chance to revive their fake “War on Women” theme that helped mobilize the Democratic base in 2012. Though it can be asserted that they didn’t need any new excuses to try the same tactic in 2014, Franks has made it a lot easier. Just as was the case in 2012, Republicans are learning the hard way that foolish statements—even if they are ripped out of their context or unfairly characterized—allow Democrats to change the subject from serious moral issues to a topic they’d rather talk about: why some Republicans are morons.
Can it be that conservatives have already forgotten how one ill-considered vulgar insult uttered by Rush Limbaugh diverted the public’s attention from the Obama administration’s attack on the religious freedom of Catholics and others who opposed its Health and Human Services mandate? In the space of a couple of days, instead of a national debate about the way ObamaCare was violating religious liberty and imposing a burden on Catholic institutions to pay for services that violated their consciences we got a full-scale argument about the way Republicans were oppressing women. Liberal activist Sandra Fluke was transformed into a feminist hero instead of being mocked, as she should have been, for her upper-middle-class plea for free birth control.
It is true that this was largely the work of a mainstream liberal media that preferred to demonize conservatives rather than to focus on a threat to religious freedom, but surely Rush and others on the right were already aware that the world isn’t fair and that they must always remember that the media playing field is tilted against them. Anyone who doesn’t already know this isn’t smart enough to be in Congress. It was in the context of that gaffe that Akin’s comments and those of Mourdock became a rallying cry from Democrats last fall.
Franks has done something just as stupid. His remarks came in the middle of a debate about a bill to ban abortion after 20 weeks including those as a result of rape or incest. Abortion rights advocates view any attempt to restrict the procedure in much the same manner as the National Rifle Association sees even the most reasonable regulations of guns, and it is to be expected that this measure will be fought tooth and nail. The wisdom of the 20-week bill can be debated, but it is part of a necessary discussion about the morality of late-term abortions in an era when medical advances have changed the way we look at such pregnancies. Yet rather than discuss the fact that babies aborted after 20 weeks are likely to be viable human beings—a fact that was highlighted during the Kermit Gosnell trial—the national discussion has turned again to Republicans and rape.
In his defense, Franks is right to assert that the instances of a rape victim waiting until 20 weeks to have an abortion are probably quite rare. But that wasn’t what he said at first. What he did utter was close enough to Akin’s infamous crack that it ensured that he would be the latest Republican turned into a piñata for liberals. Franks and other Republicans not only need to learn how to discuss social issues without sounding cavalier about rape. They need to remember that if they don’t stick to their moral talking points Democrats looking for another Akin will sucker them into rape comments.
Some would argue the GOP is better off forgetting about social issues altogether but so long as the national discussion is focused on conservative principles, such as the value of life or religious liberty, the Republicans have the high ground. But the moment they start using the words rape and pregnancy in the same sentence they are doomed. The outcome of future elections may well hinge on whether Republicans can remember this very simple rule.