Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Is Marco Rubio Another Todd Akin?

Today's New York Times contains an article reporting that Right to Rise, a super PAC supporting Jeb Bush's presidential candidacy, is developing a plan to launch a wave of attacks on Marco Rubio, an ex-political ally of Bush's from Florida who is now pulling ahead of Bush in the 2016 Republican nomination race. It's hard to conclude from the evidence presented that Bush's supporters have built a strong case against Rubio, whom—as the piece documents—Bush treated as a prize protégé for years before their presidential ambitions began to clash. Many of the complaints against Rubio represent mere personal pique, smacking of a who-does-he-think-he-is attitude that simply assumes that the younger man is bound by a type of filial duty to defer to his former political mentor. But even if Jeb Bush views the presidency, or at least the Republican nomination, as automatically his by right, there is little reason for such an assumption to be respected by any other Republican.

One element of the article that has received particular attention today is the detail that Right to Rise has produced what the Times calls a "provocative video" arguing that Rubio's "hard-line stand against abortion" renders him unelectable if nominated. At first glance, this seems like another bumbling political mistake from a flailing presidential campaign. Do Jeb Bush's allies really expect to win the Republican nomination by openly running to Rubio's, or anyone else's, political left on abortion? The tradeoff between ideological purity and real-world electability that many Democrats perceive is not equally accepted in the Republican Party, except among a small group of pragmatic-minded political consultants and donors—if anything, many conservatives view the Reagan presidency as proof that unswerving devotion to principle is electorally advantageous—and there is no obvious way for Bush or Bush-aligned groups to raise the issue without reinforcing the existing suspicions of many Republican activists that he is a bit of an ideological squish.

In its own awkward manner, however, the Bush crew has hit on an important question worthy of careful consideration by Republicans. Traditionally, most otherwise "pro-life" Republican candidates (including the last five presidential nominees) have recognized exceptions to a proposed ban on abortions for circumstances in which the pregnancy occurred as a result of rape or incest (and, in some cases, if the health of the woman were to be at permanent risk). Rubio, however, does not support these exceptions.

Rubio's position is a potential political liability in two respects. First, the rape-and-incest exceptions are popular among the public, even among citizens who identify as pro-life, and opposing them may thus place a candidate at a disadvantage in a general election. Secondly, two Republican Senate candidates were defeated in 2012 in normally Republican-leaning states after mounting poor rhetorical defenses of their own no-exceptions abortion views. Todd Akin of Missouri gained national attention for telling an interviewer that “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work or something: I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be of the rapist, and not attacking the child.” Soon afterward, Richard Mourdock of Indiana stated during a televised debate that "I came to realize life is [a] 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.” After the election, many strategically-minded Republicans pleaded with their own party's politicians to stop talking about rape lest they inflict further political damage.

Rubio is a much more canny and fluid candidate than either Akin or Mourdock, and he may well retain an ability to deflect criticisms of his position without succumbing to the clumsy arguments that cost his party two Senate seats in red states three years ago. There is no doubt, however, that a Rubio nomination will provoke the Democratic opposition into visibly and repeatedly attacking what it will view as a significant political vulnerability. Rubio is currently the trendy pick to be the next Republican nominee for the presidency, and Republicans should be aware before the process is complete that choosing him effectively signs them up for a 2016 election in which a major topic of debate will be the permissibility of abortion under conditions of rape. They will thus be counting on Rubio to handle an issue that holds demonstrable political danger much more deftly than Todd Akin did.