Todd Akin, Republican candidate for U.S. Senator from Missouri, has been at the center of controversy after making a comment about “legitimate rape.” (Christian Gooden/AP)

Mickey Edwards is a former Republican congressman from Oklahoma and the author of The Parties Versus the People: How to Turn Republicans and Democrats into Americans .

As is quite well known by now, Todd Akin, the Republican U.S. Senate candidate in Missouri, has suggested that such things as date rape, statutory rape and in fact anything other than rape by physical force or rape carried out at gunpoint or knife-point does not “legitimately” qualify as rape. Besides, if it actually is a “real” rape involving force, he says, not to worry because women’s bodies are cleverly designed to prevent such pregnancies. Sadly, Mr. Akin is not only a candidate for the Senate, he is already a member of the United States House of Representatives. This is too sad a thing to contemplate. 

The question is, what should Republican leaders do about this?

In our representative system, party leaders have no authority to order Akin out of a Senate race, so much of the leadership we’ve seen from the Republican party consists of cutting off funds and pleading for him to go away. True leadership, however, requires doing more than merely responding directly to Akin’s presence on a Republican ticket.

The real job of leadership requires seriously addressing the negative image the party now has with so many women

Keep in mind that this is not only a Missouri issue. His views may do damage to the Republican ticket nationally and in other House and Senate races as well, potentially affecting party control of Congress. Within hours of Akin’s statement, Democratic strategists sought to tie Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan and any other Republican candidate for Congress to Akin. Pictures of Akin standing next to Ryan made the nightly newscasts. Members of Congress who cosponsored a bill with Akin or spoke on the House floor in favor of a position he supported were suddenly faced with the need to defend themselves. 

Romney and Ryan both did the right thing in quickly denouncing Akin and urging him to step aside. Despite the cynicism of some in the media, I believe those denunciations were serious, not just attempts at political damage control. Karl Rove and other party leaders furthered that leadership when they announced they would no longer fund Akin’s campaign.

But even if Akin quits the race, the real challenge for party leaders is to address the fact that Akin’s statements play into a broader narrative about Republicans and women. Admittedly, the narrative is largely driven by Democratic strategists, but the list of issues that Democrats have been exploiting—from attacks on Planned Parenthood (an organization that even conservative hero Barry Goldwater supported) to anti-abortion legislation that makes no exception for rape—are nonetheless legitimate items for voters to consider.

Confronting Akin the person is easy. Confronting Akin the symbol is much harder. If Akin’s remarks are allowed to be perceived as a window into the real views of Republicans, the effects will be felt long after he has been forgotten.

In a system that allows the most partisan and ideological to punish those who depart from hard-line orthodoxy, it is unlikely that a serious rewriting of the women’s narrative will come from the ranks of Republicans in Congress. Nor, with the base still lukewarm to his candidacy, can we realistically expect Mitt Romney to drive the larger conversation beyond Akin and put his own election at stake.

That leaves the actual leadership of the party itself—the national chairman and leaders of the party’s two congressional campaign organizations—to begin a serious revamping of the Republican message. This is not the same as calling for an abandonment of principle. For most prominent Republicans, opposition to abortion is an important and deeply held part of what it means to be a member of the party. But the rawness of that message must be muted, and the reasons for those positions more clearly, and more empathetically, presented.

Akin-like pseudoscience needs to be stricken from the conversation. Republicans do, in fact, care about the welfare of women. It's time to start saying so and explaining why the policies Republicans support are consistent with that concern.

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