[This was meant to be a fairly short post, but it got away from me. I’ve chosen not to revise and edit for brevity, but leave it as an overly long rumination on the state of the Republican Party.]
Once again we are seeing the problem of running for office in a two-party system when one is far from the median voter. This time it’s Indiana’s U.S. Republican Senate candidate Richard Mourdock, who was locked in a tight, within the margin of error, race with Democrat Joe Donnelly, but now trails by double digits. This one personally interests me for several reasons: as a native Hoosier who remains fond of and still pays attention to his state politics; as someone who had great respect for the incumbent whom Mourdock beat in the primary, Dick Lugar; and as the son of an elderly right wing Christian woman who’s been a staunch Mourdock supporter from the beginning (her response to my defense of Lugar, who as much as anyone in the entire world is responsible for keeping loose nuclear materials out of the hands of terrorists, was, “But what has he done for us lately?”)
And I’m enjoying the Mourdock meltdown on two levels. At one level I just despise religious conservatives. Let me clarify that–I despise moralists. If someone goes to church three times a week, has never had a sip of alcohol, never even contemplated a toke of marijuana, has been married and faithful since they were 19, never had an abortion, and raised their kids to be the same, I have no problem with that. It’s the attempts to make others live that way that bother me (and if we select a different set of variables, we can as easily find liberal moralists). At the other level, I shake my head in wonder at people who think the majority of the public has been just wringing their hands in quiet desperation, anxiously waiting for a politician further to the right (or left, as the case may be) than the ones we currently have. No, folks, it’s a two-party system–find the median voter in your state, and that’s what “the public wants” (to the very limited extent we can talk meaningfully about a group having a preference).
Indiana, despite being a normally reliable Republican state in presidential elections (it’s defection to Obama in’08 is as good an indicator as any of how bad a campaign McCain ran), is not a right-wing state. It’s frequently had Democratic senators (especially if they’re named Bayh) and governors (since WWII 6 of its 13 governor have been Democrats). Granted the state likes its Democrats to be pretty conservative (see Bayh, Evan), but it also likes its Republicans to not be too conservative.
Mourdock was in a tight race from the beginning against Donnelly precisely because he is too far from Indiana’s center. But just how far was only revealed when he he claimed that babies born as a consequence of rape were God’s will. This has been treated by liberals as an outrageous statement, but really it’s not, from a religious perspective. A fundamental belief in Christianity is that God is omniscient and omnipotent–nothing happens that he does not know of and allow to happen. God is in control, so what happens is, plausibly, his will.
But if the statement is not truly outrageous, it is theologically troubling, in a way that has been debated for centuries. It’s essentially the problem of theodicy–how can evil exist in a world created by a loving and benevolent God? While Mourdock obviously does not believe that rape is God’s will, it’s difficult for many people to see how the outcome of the rape could be God’s will, without God at least being fairly blase about the rape itself. The “when life gives you lemons make lemonade” approach doesn’t really work here because not very many people think that the woman who becomes pregnant is blessed by carrying a child whose genes are half those of the man who raped her. Not only has the rapist violated her, but she must now do him the genetic favor of producing his child?
And yet of course it’s not the child’s fault, and that child is deserving of as much consideration–has as much “intrinsic worth” (in the words of my college’s founder, Asa Mahan) as any other child. Note that I’m fudging on the issue of when the union of the sperm and egg become a child, but for sake of argument let’s take it as happening at the moment of conception, because in fact many people do sincerely believe that. That’s why I can’t see Mourdock’s belief as outrageous. It’s not like Todd Akin’s monumentally stupid claim that a woman can’t get pregnant through rape, which means that if she did get pregnant we can determine that she in fact wasn’t raped. Mourdock’s not being that dismissive of how terrible rape is, as Akin did. Here are Mourdock’s actual words:
“I just – I struggle with it myself for a long time but I came to realize that life is that gift from God, and I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape that it is something that God intended to happen.”
Rape is horrible, and because it is horrible this is an issue he’s struggled with. I think that’s respectable.
But it isn’t median. Americans are divided over the issue of abortion, with relatively few being either for banning it in all or almost all situations or for allowing it in all situations, and the percentages have been relatively stable for over 35 years. Scroll down to page 2 in that Gallup poll, and you see that 75% of respondents favor a right to abortion in the case of rape or incest. 75%. Whatever the intellectual and moral legitimacy of Mourdock’s thoughts, the median voter does not agree with him on this really charged issue.
(Warning: This was meant to be short and sweet, but it kind of got away from me. I decided not to revise and edit for compactness, but let it stand as an organic rumination on the current state of the Republican Party and its future.)
Despite the common liberal claim that if men could get pregnant abortion would be legal in all circumstances, the gender divide on abortion really isn’t that great. Woman are more likely to see abortion as a major concern, but overall there is not much difference between woman and men on whether abortion should be legal or not.
But where woman may really stand out is when a candidate appears to be too dismissive of the areas where they are more likely to find abortion acceptable. Mourdock has gone from having a 6 percentage point disadvantage in the female vote to an 18 point disadvantage.
Over the past two elections the Republicans had a real shot at taking the Senate from the Democrats. But Tea Party favorites ruined a couple of chances to pick up seats in 2010, making this year’s effort at regaining a majority that much harder, and this year Akin and Mourdock are hurting their chances again–Akin by possibly failing to pick up a Democratic-held seat that he was favored to win, and Mourdock by losing a Republican held-seat that the party, at least, if not him personally, was initially favored to retain.
And of course on the national stage Mitt Romney’s necessary kowtowing to the Tea Partiers during the primaries continues to hurt him, as he is unable to get momentum on persuading the public that he really would govern moderately as he did as governor of Massachusetts (for the record, I believe he mostly would, except, probably, in foreign affairs), nor can he go all out in making that case without risking losing the GOP base.
The Tea Partiers won’t learn from their defeats. They’ll blame Romney’s loss on his not being a true conservative, and they’ll blame Mourdock’s and Akin’s probable losses on the liberal media. The GOP establishment types desperately want to re-take their party’s center from those folks and move it back closer to the public’s center, but that’s increasingly difficult as the real moderates get pushed out of party. Unless they can bring liberal and moderate Republicans back into the primaries, they’ll not be able to get the kind of nominees that will help pull the party back to the center.
My friend PJ thinks they’ll get this sorted out by 2016 and be a strong contender again. I’m more skeptical, and think the Tea Partiers still have an arsenal of excuses they can wield to avoid facing up to their responsibility. And if Rush Limbaugh is right when he predicts a Romney loss will lead to a conservative split from the Republicans to form a third party, the process of GOP recovery will be even slower. He’s probably wrong, both because he’s paid to be provocative rather than correct and because nothing in recent history to suggest that a splinter third party can successfully challenge its parent party for supremacy.
But then again I’m not sure we’ve seen just this kind of determined revolt against the party establishment before. Because this movement actually, I think, begins with George Wallace’s American Independent Party in 2008. That was merely a southern conservative revolt against the Democrats, but it presaged the conservative Dems leaving the party, which they did in increasing numbers until the 1994 Republican takeover of the House led to the final break, with most of the last holdouts jumping to the GOP. In that interim we had first Jimmy Carter and then Ronald Reagan stimulating the organization of religious conservatives as a political force. As the southern conservatives joined the GOP they shifted the balance of that party well to the right, and have progressively pushed the classic old northern style Republicans–the Gerald Fords, the Nelson Rockefellers, the Jim Jeffords, even the Alan Simpsons–out of the party. With each departure the weight of the conservatives grows. But with each departure the positioning of the party shifts further away from the median American voter. The fact that the median voter in some states is to the right of the median American helps obscure this, by preserving some fairly safe Senate seats, and the intensive gerrymandering (both Dem and Rep) that has occurred over the past 20 years further obscures this by creating many extremely safe House seats for conservatives.
So what factors are out there that are likely to reverse this trend? The only one I can see is if a long series of losses makes it clear to conservatives that they need to moderate their demands–not necessarily their beliefs. You’d think the sudden collapse of support for Mourdock would lead them to start thinking seriously about that. You’d be wrong. Moralists learn slowly, if they learn at all.