POLITICS
12/05/2013 05:31 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

GOP Dudes Get Trained Up In The Ways Of Womenfolk, Apparently

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Here is some good news for everyone who likes half-assed attempts at "rebranding" and "message adjustments." Politico today reports the "National Republican Congressional Committee wants to make sure there are no Todd Akin-style gaffes next year, so it’s meeting with top aides of sitting Republicans to teach them what to say -- or not to say -- on the trail, especially when their boss is running against a woman."

This seems to me to be a worthy goal. Back during the 2012 election season, Todd Akin -- then attempting to move up from his Missouri 2nd District House seat to the Senate seat that was occupied by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) -- drew a lot of attention when he suggested that women only rarely became pregnant in cases of "legitimate rape," because "the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down." You know, like magical uterine-based sperm lasers, or something. This struck a lot of people as deeply wrong, mainly because it was objectively crazy, and, for a time, his comments hung over the rest of the GOP's ambitions like a dark cloud.

So, yes, it would seem to me to be somewhat important to prevent similar statements from being made, especially when they contribute to a gender gap that's playing itself out like so:

A series of recent polls show a continued double-digit lead for Democratic candidates among women, with the margin soaring to much higher levels among single female voters. The GOP -- which lost female voters by large margins in every competitive Senate race in the 2012 election -- also saw a 10-point increase in its unfavorability rating among women to 63 percent, according to an October ABC/Washington Post poll.

And so the NRCC has been staging "multiple sessions" in which "aides to incumbents" are coached up on how to run against "women opponents" without pulling a Todd Akin.

It seems to me that some of this should be quite simple. Akin's basic take on how a woman's body works is the equivalent of telling a roomful of voters, "Base times height divided by two? That's bunk. Everyone knows that you compute the area of a triangle by leaving milk and cookies out for the hypotenuse elves!" To cure the Republican Party of some of these nutty beliefs about human physiology, one would only need to hire a half-decent A.P. biology teacher for a few hours.

But I have a funny feeling that this isn't so much an exercise in using a basic high school education to remove one's core belief in a bunch of cuckoo-bananas balderdash, as much as it is an exercise in holding onto all that cuckoo-bananas stuff, but not speaking of it out loud in front of reporters. As Politico reports:

Rep. Scott Rigell, who won his Virginia seat last time by about 1,000 votes and is running against a Democratic woman next year, said he wants to focus on economic issues, not social issues.

“I look at it this way -- I wake up every day not thinking about the social issues,” Rigell said. “I sought office because I know we can do better on job creation and I’m also concerned about our fiscal trajectory.”

Rigell, who said he gets his best counsel from his wife, also said he wants to focus on issues that benefit the “full fabric of our communities.”

“I think as part of that we’re strengthening things that are important to women and, of course, to men as well. Early childhood education, making sure that our children are safe and they have great opportunities once they get out of high school or college,” he said.

Now, I would not equate Scott Rigell with someone like Todd Akin, and Rigell's on the right track with some of this stuff. That said, when he talks about waking up every day "not thinking about social issues," he just seems to endorse a strategy of rigorously changing the subject.

The lesson that a Todd Akin would extract from this is that it's okay to continue to believe weird things about rape -- and, by implication, continue to allow his policymaking to be informed by those weird beliefs -- as long as he never speaks about his weird beliefs out loud. Whereas the optimal strategy is to rid these loose cannons of their off-putting theories completely. After all, someone who is avoiding giving voice to their stupidity is still at a structural disadvantage to an opponent who can speak comfortably about these matters, owing to their lack of stupidity.

Beyond the NRCC's efforts, another strategic reaction to the "Todd Akin Problem" has come in the form of Karl Rove's Conservative Victory Project organization. And that group has failed to convince me of its seriousness for the exact same reason.

Back in February, The New York Times gave readers a taste of what the Conservative Victory Project is all about, reporting how Rove's group was seeking to counter the ambitions of Iowa Rep. Steve King, a Republican who was flirting with making a 2014 run for the Senate. Rove's aide-de-camp in this effort, Steven J. Law, characterized the concerns of the Conservative Victory Project like this: "We’re concerned about Steve King’s Todd Akin problem. ... This is an example of candidate discipline and how it would play in a general election."

Ahh, but it's not an example of "candidate discipline" at all! Women voters aren't going to have a greater appreciation for a candidate who is disciplined enough to never make mention of their beliefs that alienate women. They will reserve that appreciation for a candidate who doesn't think those things in the first place, and by extension, doesn't need "discipline" to keep from making women vomit in their own mouths.

Now, I think it's fair to say that there are limits to the number of people in the GOP who have to specifically worry about being the next Todd Akin. It's not my fault that the NRCC and Karl Rove keep drilling down at Akin as their ur-example of the sort of thing that has created the aforementioned gender gap. But this is a very basic lesson -- Don't Think Dumb Things In The First Place 101. And if the GOP is struggling with these exceedingly easy concepts and prescribing this "just keep your mouth shut about those things" tactic as a cure, then the party will never be able to manage the graduate-level coursework in "How To Talk To Women."

For example, Charles Pierce, who frequently "despairs of the rebranding," notes this initiative being pursued by Republicans in Michigan:

Michigan lawmakers are currently deciding whether to advance a bill that would require women in the state to purchase a separate insurance policy for abortion coverage, even in cases of rape or incest. If it's approved, Michigan would join a long list of other states that have attacked abortion access by preventing women from using their own insurance to pay for it. The debate over the legislation has heated up this week, particularly since the measure would deny abortion coverage even to women who have become pregnant as a result of rape. Although the overwhelming majority of Americans believe that rape victims should have access to legal abortion services, lawmakers continue to propose policies that would have callous implications for individuals who have been sexually assaulted.

Remember when Rep. Rigell said he wanted to place a greater emphasis on economic issues, rather than social issues, in his pitch to women voters? This strategy is enunciated fairly commonly, and conservatives tend to complain that their Democratic opponents prefer to treat women as single-issue voters, and constantly work to box conservatives in on issues like abortion when all those conservatives want to do is talk about all the great economic freedom women are going to have.

Well, I'd definitely encourage conservatives to keep thinking about specific ways that the economic burdens that woman face can be alleviated. That said, it's simply a fact of life that when you offer women a lot of economic benefits if they'd only be willing to exchange an amount of personal agency and autonomy to get it, there are going to be a lot of women who respond, "Thanks for the offer, but I think I'll hold out for someone who's offering me those same financial benefits without the sacrifice."

So, it's great that the NRCC is doing all this coaching on how to talk to women. And you know, the GOP will be running women in 2014, which means that the liberal dude-bros that run against them had better not trip up themselves. But it seems to me that the GOP isn't as close to squaring this circle as it thinks it is.

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