June 4, 2013

The Republican Party is on bad terms with a long list of voters. It has no credibility with African Americans, almost none with young voters, little with Hispanics, and is on the rocks with women. The latter is partially a result of positions taken by GOP politicians — in particular, the nationwide push to restrict abortion access and the fight last year over Planned Parenthood, Sandra Fluke, and the administration’s contraception mandate.

Since the election, Republicans have made small rhetorical moves toward repairing their standing with women voters, by emphasizing proposals meant to improve life for mothers and children. There’s no evidence — yet — that this has been effective. But if there have been gains, they risk being undone by the rhetoric of GOP senators on the sexual abuse scandal in the military.

Last month, a series of sexual assault scandals revealed the extent to which the Pentagon has had a hard time handling what seems to be an epidemic — last year, 26,000 cases of assault were reported to military authorities. And given what we know about sexual assault reporting, the actual number of incidents was almost certainly higher.

Some Republicans, like Senators Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Deb Fischer of Nebraska — both members of the Armed Services Committee — have taken a lead on pressing the Pentagon for answers. Indeed, they’ll take part in a hearing today where they’ll question all six members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on the rising rate of sexual assaults.

Others, however, have railed against this attempt to shed light on the problem. Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, for example, took to the Senate floor yesterday to argue against the idea that sexual assault cases should require a different approach from other criminal behavior in the military. He is the ranking Republican on Armed Services.

“To take the commander out of the process will invite failure,” Inhofe said Monday. “These commanders have to make decisions to send our brave troops into battle. How ludicrous is it that we would say to our commanders, you’ve got to make a decision to send one of our kids into battle where they may end up losing their lives. But however, you can’t participate in the justice system of the troops. It doesn’t make any sense at all.”

Texas Senator John Cornyn sounded a similar note. “The problem is the military is a little different than other institutions and if you take accountability and responsibility out of the hands of the commanding officer, we shouldn’t do that lightly.”

Given the wide number of sexual assault cases, it seems hard to argue that the current system is adequate to the scope of the problem. But these influential Republican senators have adopted the case for the status quo. And in doing so, they face both a substantive problem — the status quo has been a detriment to women in the military — and a political one.

In addition to its opposition to abortion and expanded contraceptive services, the GOP will be on record as unwilling to take steps to deal with sexual assault in the military. When you combine this with rhetoric from activists like Erick Erickson of Redstate.com, you have an overarching approach that promises to further alienate women from the GOP. It’s as if some Republicans are actively trying to take the party’s weaknesses, and amplify them.