Neil Macdonald: Tea Party politics playing into Obama's hands

Locked in a battle for women's votes, Barack Obama is raising the spectre of Republicans recriminalizing abortion, Neil Macdonald writes. And Tea Party-backed candidates like Indiana's Richard Mourdock are playing right to script.

Rape and abortion comments mirror Republican official platform

In this final, desperate sprint towards Nov. 6, Barack Obama must be grateful for his allies among Tea Partiers and hard-line evangelicals.

Not that these far-right wingers are going to vote for him. They'd probably sooner send a donkey to the White House.

But they're out there helping Democrats nonetheless, just as they always have.

In the 2010 midterm elections, with their insistence on ideological purity, Tea Partiers ensured the nominations of ultraconservative Republicans for key Senate races in Arizona, Delaware and Colorado.

All three of these Tea Party champions were so right wing that they scared centrist voters and they all lost. When the midterm elections were done, Democrats maintained control of Congress's upper chamber in what was otherwise a sharp electoral rebuke of Obama's stewardship.

This time around, Tea Partiers and evangelicals helped Richard Mourdock elbow aside the relatively moderate Republican Sen. Richard Lugar in Indiana, and helped ensure the nomination of Todd Akin for the Senate race in Missouri.

Both these fellows easily passed the ideological litmus test, and both, again, are turning out to be gifts for Obama.

Rape and abortion

Todd Akin in Missouri was the first to distinguish himself, rather foolishly answering an interviewer's hypothetical question in late August: Should women who become pregnant as a result of rape have the right to an abortion?

The reality, of course, is that they already have that right. It's the law of the land.

Indiana Senate hopeful Richard Mourdock. He attempted to pull back on his rape and abortion comments, but they still reflect official party policy. (Associated Press)

But Akin jumped right in. Not only did he declare that rape is not a valid reason for an abortion, he blundered on: "From what I understand from doctors, that's really rare," he said. "If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down."

Most Republicans realized the damage he'd just done. One after another, they called on him to step aside.

"Bless his heart, I don't want to pile on Todd Akin, because in some respects, I understand what he's trying to say here," said Sarah Palin. "But you got to know when to hold them and know when to fold them." And Missouri, she added, is a must-win state.

Akin, though, refused to quit, even when directly asked to do so by the Romney campaign. Evangelicals and Tea Partiers, sensing a chance to defy the party establishment, rushed to his defence with organization and money.

He's still in the race, but he's trailing Democrat incumbent Sen. Claire McAskill, according to recent polls.

Mourdock's musing

Then, this week, along came Richard Mourdock in Indiana.

Once again, someone asked him about allowing rape victims to procure abortions, and once again, the Republican took the bait.

"Life is that gift from God," he declared. "And, I think, even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that is something that God intended to happen."

In a sense, this is even worse for Republicans than the Akin episode. Because Mourdock was giving voice to official party orthodoxy.

The Republican party platform holds that neither rape nor incest should be grounds to procure an abortion.

The logic, as Republicans state it, is this: Life begins at conception. All abortions murder a living being. Therefore, allowing abortions in cases of rape or incest amounts to murdering a human being based on the criminality of the father.

As Romney's vice-presidential running mate Paul Ryan, who opposes making exceptions for rape and incest, puts it: "The method of conception doesn't change the definition of life."

Ryan is also a Tea Party champion, chosen by Romney for his appeal to the hardcore base.

'Ferret in a dishwasher'

But while Mourdock's and Ryan's and Akin's positions might be utterly logical to far-right Republicans, they're political lunacy in a general election where women's votes are crucial.

Taking a position like Mourdock's instantly opens Republicans to questions no politician, however conservative, wants to answer. For instance, does that mean God intends rapes to happen?

Mourdock called a news conference to answer that one.

"I am absolutely confident," he told reporters Wednesday, "that as I stand here that the God that I worship, abhors violence, abhors sexual violence in a forced rape."

But if you follow his logic along, it would suggest God sometimes just uses rape as an opportunity to bestow the precious gift of life upon the rapist's victim.

No wonder Mitt Romney was quoted in a recent book comparing the Tea Party to "a ferret in a dishwasher."

The Romney campaign has tried to repair the damage, by distancing itself from Mourdock's remarks.

But at this late stage in the campaign, Romney has no choice but to continue supporting him in the Indiana Senate race. The Republicans hope to take control of both houses of Congress, and need an Indiana win to do it.

Obama, locked in a ferocious battle with Romney for women's votes, is gratefully making full use of Mourdock's late-campaign contribution, and his campaign is making sure Romney's running mate wears it, too.

Democrats have already produced a TV ad featuring the Paul Ryan quote about how the "method of conception" is irrelevant.

At every opportunity, Obama declares that "this is exactly why we don't want a bunch of politicians, mostly male, making decisions on women's health care."

Lost in all this is Mitt Romney's awkward groping for a compromise position.

Yes, he's anti-abortion, and no, he doesn't want a single abortion to take place in America, and yes, he once said, he would happily sign a bill banning abortion, but at the same time, he says, the American public is just not ready for a law like that, so yes, in the unlikely event that Congress passes a law overriding the Supreme Court's landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling and recriminalizes abortion, he would make an exception for rape and for incest.

But it is hard to reinvent yourself as a moderate and stand on middle ground when you have Todd Akin, Richard Mourdock, Paul Ryan and other determinedly principled Tea Party heroes tugging at your coattails.

Meanwhile, political handicapper Charlie Cook, who last year was giving Republicans a 60 to 70 per cent chance of gaining control of the Senate now says the likelihood of it remaining under the control of Democrats is 55 to 60 per cent. Stay tuned.


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.