“Character” is a word that Republicans used a lot in the 1990s, by which they meant President Bill Clinton’s sexual behavior. “At least,” my Republican mother said pointedly upon the election of George W. Bush, “he’s a man of character,” unlike the previous guy getting blow jobs from interns in the Oval Office. If their candidate for president this year should lose in November, it will be interesting to see to what extent Republicans understand that character is one of the reasons. As Governor Mitt Romney’s prospects grow more daunting, a view has emerged from the right that the problem is the political flaws and tactical missteps of the candidate and his campaign, in what Republicans insist to themselves should otherwise be a “gimme” election (to quote radio talk-show host Laura Ingraham). But the Romney Problem is more profound, and it’s one of character, not tactics.
(AP Photo/The Tampa Bay Times, Edmund D. Fountain)
Three days from now, in the hurricane-lashed hull of the Tampa Bay Times Forum, at the temporal cross coordinates of Congressman Todd Akin’s confession and the Republican Party’s communion, we’re finally going to see what’s truly mesmerized this white, middle-aged, male political conglomerate for the last two generations, and that’s the sexual freedom of women. The language has always been there, but until this presidential election it’s been lip service; next Monday, however, when the Republican platform is approved by the party’s convention, all the fear and loathing that women’s sexuality engenders will be splayed in the aisles before an electorate newly alerted to the party’s unforgiving position on abortion courtesy of Akin’s imprudence. The Akin vocabulary, and the platform’s, may be one of “abortion” and “rape,” but those words are symptoms of what really afflicts the party, which is the intolerable vision of women having sex on their own terms with impunity. This is what much of the anti-abortion movement detests and always has detested in the name of “life.”
One of the things we’ll learn this presidential election is whether the Republican Party can survive itself. As we’ve seen in the ten days since Governor Mitt Romney picked Congressman Paul Ryan as his running mate, and most acutely in the last 72 hours since the fiasco involving Missouri Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin broke, the party is reaching what may be the most critical moment of its quarter-century-long identity crisis. In the way that Franklin Roosevelt did for Democrats during the 1930s, by sheer force of personality and eloquence Ronald Reagan in the 1980s resolved tensions that had riven the party for years. He could incarnate the party so fully as to invite and absolve fellow travelers who might be suspiciously less than true believers. After Reagan, no one else could do this; even as what now constitutes the conservative wing of the party invokes Reagan’s name with a sobriety that borders on the biblical, that wing has moved considerably to the right of him.
I spent most of July in the upper Midwest and was reminded that not everyone in America passes the summer fixated on politics. They go to the beach, catch fish, grill burgers, eat ice cream, try to stay cool, see The Dark Knight Rises without recognizing it as the fascist tract that shrewder observers from Rolling Stone do. In the Bear Lake Tavern where I would have dinner not far from Lake Michigan, the TV over the bar is set to the Olympics before being turned to CNN or Fox or occasionally NBC (but not MSNBC).
This past Friday was one of those strange and sad days in the life of a country when a number of things don’t so much converge as share the commonality of the moment and thereby exist within the shadows of each other. The massacre that greeted the release of the year’s most-awaited movie just a few midnights ago in a tiny Colorado town took place at cross-coordinates social, cultural, and political by virtue of timing and the parameters of the occasion, if nothing else; though the more terrible the toll in such circumstances, the more natural it is to draw conclusions, learn lessons or arrive at resolutions, the only thing straightforward about any of it is the horror.