Ruth Marcus
Columnist August 20, 2012

Missouri Republican Todd Akin’s remarks about women not becoming pregnant from “legitimate rape” are so self-evidently offensive and ignorant they scarcely require a response. What merits more attention is what the episode exposes about the most fundamental of political instincts: self-preservation.

Start with Akin. The six-term congressman now running for the Senate posted a Facebook statement Sunday, explaining that he “misspoke” in making an “off-the-cuff” remark.

Ruth Marcus is a columnist and editorial writer for The Post, specializing in American politics and domestic policy. View Archive

Misspoke is when you accidentally introduce your vice presidential running mate as the “next president of the United States.” (See both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama.) Misspoke is when your mouth gets ahead of your brain. (See Joe Biden, most recently on Republicans putting “y’all back in chains.”) Misspoke is a politician’s way of never having to say he’s sorry, the first cousin to the non-apology apology (“I’m sorry if you were offended”).

But suggesting that in situations of “legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down” is not misspeaking. It’s mis-thinking.

By midday Monday, Akin was in full grovel, appearing on Mike Huckabee’s radio show to disavow his remarks without ever managing to explain them.

The Romney campaign followed a similar arc. First came the non-denunciation denunciation. On Sunday night, hours after the story broke, the campaign put out a joint statement by Romney and Paul Ryan mildly saying that they “disagree” with Akin’s statement and “a Romney-Ryan administration would not oppose abortion in instances of rape.”

Disagreement is when you differ over the proper tax treatment of capital gains income. When an ally comes under assault, the first impulse of politicians of both parties is to circle the political wagons, to concede only as much as politically necessary and not a millimeter more.

Thus the Obama campaign’s steadfast — and wrongheaded — refusal to distance itself from an inflammatory ad by an Obama-supporting super PAC insinuating that Romney helped contribute to the death of a laid-off worker’s wife.

The second impulse is to throw the offending person under the bus. As the outrage over Akin’s remarks mounted, so did the tone of the Romney campaign’s rhetoric.

By Monday morning, Romney was telling National Review’s Robert Costa that Akin’s comments were “insulting, inexcusable and, frankly, wrong,” adding, “Like millions of other Americans, we found them to be offensive.” After we thought about it for a while.

Then there is the sheer cynicism of Democrats’ attitude toward Akin, even predating his rape remarks. In the three-way Missouri GOP primary, Akin was the Democrats’ favorite Republican. No surprise there: He was the most conservative of the field, and therefore represented Sen. Claire McCaskill’s best shot at holding on to her endangered seat.

The cynical twist was that a Democratic super PAC intervened in the primary to try to bolster Akin’s chances. Majority PAC, a group allied with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), spent more than $1 million attacking the GOP front-runner, John Brunner.

This maneuver isn’t unprecedented: the Patriot Majority PAC, run by a former Reid staffer, pulled the same stunt in Reid’s own race two years ago, intervening in the Republican primary to help propel tea party candidate Sharron Angle.

This time around, McCaskill herself seemed to be meddling in the GOP primary, with ads blasting all three Republicans. But her critique of Akin as the “true conservative” in the race and a “crusader against bigger government” appeared designed more to bolster Akin than to hurt him — and it represented the vast majority of McCaskill’s spending.

There was McCaskill on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” Monday, modestly demurring about whether Akin should withdraw as the nominee.

“It’s not my place to decide,” she said. “I really think that for the national party to try to come in here and dictate to the Republican primary voters that they’re going to invalidate their decision, that would be pretty radical. I think there could be a backlash for the Republicans if they did that.”

How nice of McCaskill to care so much about the other party — having helped cherry-pick its nominee.

Contrast McCaskill’s tender concern for Missouri’s Republican voters with that of Texas Sen. John Cornyn, head of the Republicans’ Senate campaign arm, who all but shoved Akin out the door Monday.

Cornyn issued a statement calling Akin’s remarks “wrong, offensive and indefensible” and urging him to take 24 hours to “carefully consider what is best for him, his family, the Republican Party.” A short time later, Romney was urging the same.

Is it any wonder Americans hate politics?

ruthmarcus@washpost.com