Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Todd Akin and rape: Obama's cautious politics are showing again

President Obama's has been surprisingly aggressive the last few weeks against the Romney campaign. But the last few days we've also seen some discouraging signs of his cautious politics, which are still confounding in someone who certainly showed personal boldness in becoming the first African-American President.

But personal boldness in Obama has always been melded with his relentlessly centrist approach to politics. The National Review Online quoted Romney on Monday as saying this about Todd Akins ugly comment about how rape supposedly rarely produces a pregnancy (Robert Costa, Romney: Akin's Comment 'Inexcusable' 08/20/2012): "Congressman’s Akin comments on rape are insulting, inexcusable, and, frankly, wrong. Like millions of other Americans, we found them to be offensive. I have an entirely different view. What he said is entirely without merit and he should correct it." (my emphasis)

Several hours later, Obama had the following to say (Remarks by the President to the White House Press Corps 08/20/2012):

Q[uestion:] Thank you, Mr. President. Thank you for being here. You’re no doubt aware of the comments that the Missouri Senate candidate, Republican Todd Akin, made on rape and abortion. I wondered if you think those views represent the views of the Republican Party in general. They've been denounced by your own rival and other Republicans. Are they an outlier or are they representative?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, let me, first of all, say the views expressed were offensive. Rape is rape. And the idea that we should be parsing and qualifying and slicing what types of rape we're talking about doesn’t make sense to the American people and certainly doesn't make sense to me.

So what I think these comments do underscore is why we shouldn't have a bunch of politicians, a majority of whom are men, making health care decisions on behalf of women.

And so, although these particular comments have led Governor Romney and other Republicans to distance themselves, I think the underlying notion that we should be making decisions on behalf of women for their health care decisions -- or qualifying forcible rape versus non-forcible rape -- I think those are broader issues, and that is a significant difference in approach between me and the other party.

But I don’t think that they would agree with the Senator from Missouri in terms of his statement, which was way out there.

Q[uestion:] Should he drop out of the race?

THE PRESIDENT: He was nominated by the Republicans in Missouri. I'll let them sort that out. [my emphasis]
Now, in terms of the "horse-race", Obama did take good advantage of the opportunity. But Mitt Romney statement was a more clear repudiation of Todd Akin's statement. And I don't think Taylor Marsh is parsing words too closely when she says the following:

That Pres. Obama joined [the anti-abortion Republicans'] language yesterday by invoking it in his press conference wasn’t picked up by any outlet or new media site anywhere. To remind, after saying "rape is rape," he said: "... or qualifying forcible rape versus non-forcible rape, I think those are broader issues ..." It was likely said to find common ground and since Republicans are so extreme no one is going to pick gnat crap out of pepper. In fact, to my knowledge, I was the only one to even question its outrageous utterance. Readers around here didn’t even find it very shocking, because compared to what Republicans are intending for women at least Pres. Obama has put the largest expansion of power in U.S. history in women’s hands by making contraception free, as well as a host of other reproductive health care options. The forgotten detail is he also chose politics over science on Plan B. These are inconvenient facts that are ignored when looking at Romney-Ryan in the White House. But it’s part of why women continue on this tread mill of individual freedoms.

Until a strong Republican pro women’s freedom and self-determination coalition develops inside that party our country will remain unable to solve the larger issues facing us.

Until Democrats refuse to compromise and coddle their own religious conservatives on matters of women’s fundamental rights of freedoms we’ll keep talking about this subject election after election. [bolding and italics in original]
Marsh's complaint is justified. Even though it's a horse-race plus for Obama, both he and Romney treated Akin's comment, which expressed the ugly viewpoint of the anti-abortion House Republicans on rape that Paul Ryan shares, as a gaffe that was "offensive." But Obama didn't use the opportunity to highlight the kind of examples that Marsh lists of what his Administration has actually contributed to "women for their health care decisions". He didn't tie it to the House measure that would have redefined rape in order to restrict access to abortion for rape victims, which Ryan supported. He didn't highlight anything about the crackpot radicalism and medical misinformation being promoted by the anti-abortion movement. The word "abortion" didn't even appear in his statement. Nor did he make it a point about women's rights, but rather about the bad manners of "a bunch of politicians, a majority of whom are men, making health care decisions on behalf of women".

Classic Obama minimalism, in other words. Even in the transcript, his careful choosing of words is evident, and more so in the video. As Marsh points out, his garbled reference to the House Republicans attempt to redefine rape ("qualifying forcible rape versus non-forcible rape") steps on his "rape is rape" comment. And, rather than try to hang that albatross on the Republicans' necks, he basically gives the Republicans a waiver by saying, "But I don’t think that they would agree with the Senator from Missouri in terms of his statement, which was way out there." He pepper-sprays his own message within a couple of sentences, in other words.

But this isn't just a matter of style. Obama has shown, especially in the health care debate, that he is willing to easily concede to the Blue Dogs when it comes to restricting abortion rights. His statement quoted above gives female voters a quotable quote, "rape is rape". But it says nothing about his commitment to abortion rights. He's leaving an opening for more "bipartisan" compromises on women's right to abortion.

It reminded me a lot of his response to the mass gun shooting in which Congresswoman Gaby Giffords was almost assassinated. That gave Obama a great opportunity to highlight some popular measure to promote some specific proposal to limit gun violence, or to highlight the way irresponsible, lying rightwingers are creating a climate of hatred and violence. He did neither. Instead, he offered up general pablum about civility, and established the bad precedent of the President treating mass gun murder murder events as occasions to play Pastor-in-Chief and invite the country to join in a sentimental moment of national unity in mourning.

Obama wants to be the great conciliator, the man who achieves postpartisan harmony with a Republican Party that is in a continuing process of radicalization. His response to Todd Akin's rape comment shows him very much in his Postpartisan Conciliator mode. It appears that Obama will try to use just enough partisanship to get re-elected and no more. He's not interested in building a mandate for Democratic policies.

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