Rape vs. Race

The GOP refused to support a racist in 1991. Will it support a rape skeptic in 2012?

Newt Gingrich campaigning for Todd Akin, Sept. 24.

Photo by Whitney Curtis/Getty Images

When Rep. Todd Akin, the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate in Missouri, made his infamous comments about “legitimate rape,” the party’s national leaders abandoned him. They urged him to step down so they could substitute a more electable nominee.

Akin refused. Today was the deadline for him to withdraw. He’s staying in the race. And some Republican leaders are creeping back in to support him.

Mike Huckabee is sticking with Akin. Phyllis Schlafly is doing a bus tour for him. The Senate Conservatives Fund, headed by Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., is seeking support from its donors to help Akin. And yesterday, Newt Gingrich went to Missouri to headline a $500-a-plate fund-raiser for him.

Gingrich says party leaders have no business shunning a candidate chosen by voters. “The people of Missouri picked him to be their nominee in a fair fight,” Gingrich told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. At yesterday’s fund-raiser, Gingrich asked: “What’s the moral case for not backing the Republican nominee picked by the people of Missouri?” In a radio interview, he elaborated:

I just think it is so profoundly wrong for the big-money boys in Washington to decide they can dictate to the people of Missouri or Georgia or any other state. Todd Akin won the nomination. … He is clearly the candidate of the people of Missouri. … People who donate to the [Republican] Senate committee should be calling and raising Cain and saying, “What do you mean you’re not going to be for the Republican nominee in Missouri?”

That isn’t what Gingrich said when he was one of the party’s big-money boys. In 1986, Gingrich became general chairman of GOPAC, an organization dedicated to supporting conservative Republican candidates. Three years into his tenure, David Duke, a former Ku Klux Klansman, won a seat in the Louisiana legislature as a Republican. Duke formally renounced his past racist affiliations, but Gingrich—who was a month away from being elected to the second highest Republican post in the U.S. House of Representatives—refused to accept him. ”This is a man whose record is one of … race-baiting,” Gingrich insisted. ”The Republican Party wants to make clear that we do not condone, we do not tolerate, race-baiting.”

In 1991, 56 percent of Louisiana Republicans voted for Duke for governor. But a year later, as Duke prepared to run for president, Gingrich repeated that Duke “should be shunned.”

Last month, many national Republicans took a similar stance toward Akin. After Akin said that an abortion ban need not include an exception for rape because “if it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down,” GOP leaders said the party had to make clear that it didn’t condone his views.

Gingrich takes a different view. Now that the subject is sexism rather than racism, he advocates forgiveness, tolerance, and Republican solidarity. He defends Akin’s abortion views and says Akin’s opponent, Sen. Claire McCaskill, “stands for the kind of abortion rules that are just totally unacceptable to most decent Americans.” Gingrich calls Akin’s comment a “six-second mistake” and says Akin should be forgiven because he “admitted he made a mistake and apologized for it.”

That’s a whitewash. Akin’s problem with rape, like Duke’s problem with race, goes back decades. He’s been a rape skeptic since the days when Duke was running for governor. And Akin has never apologized for that. In his so-called apology, Akin asserted, “The mistake I made was in the words I said, not in the heart I hold.”

This doesn’t seem to trouble Gingrich. “I can’t imagine,” he exclaims in disbelief, that the Republican National Committee “would want to risk losing Missouri for Romney by getting into some kind of divisive schismatic fight.” Race is a red line, but rape is just a schism.

Akin never wore a hood, and 2012 is a long way from 1991. You can argue that the two cases are different. But Gingrich, Huckabee, DeMint, and other Republicans haven’t made that case. They haven’t explained why, if racial prejudice disqualifies a popularly chosen candidate from national Republican support, rape skepticism doesn’t. Until they do, the simplest explanation is that a history of second-guessing women about rape doesn’t bother these Republicans morally—or at least politically—the way that a history of racism does.

If you have a better answer, gentlemen, let’s hear it.

William Saletan’s latest short takes on the news, via Twitter: