The more things change in the Republican race, the more they stay the same. Punditry had it that Tuesday’s primaries and caucuses would be conclusive, because punditry yearns for the conclusive when it can’t have the purely chaotic. “The beginning of the end,” was the result that commentators anticipated, by which they meant the final collapse of the final anti-Romney incarnation—as precipitated by Rick Santorum’s stall in Michigan last week—and Romney’s consolidation of the nomination. Forty-eight hours later, nothing is different at all. Romney is still the front-runner and the only candidate whose ultimate victory is fathomable, even as more and more he appears the weakest nominee of either party since the 1980s.
What’s most striking about this—not in the sense that it’s surprising, which it isn’t, but rather in the sense that it’s so characteristic—is that nothing rocks this race, nothing shifts the inherent dynamic. The race is hermetically sealed, impervious to untamed truths in the way that ideological rigidity dictates, in the way that orthodoxy insists on bending perceptions of the outside world to fit preconceptions. If the Republican Party alienates the independent vote as much as it seems intent on doing, it will be because of a collective disconnect with the rest of the country that barely skirts the sociopathic, and to that end, this has been the month when one of the great political parties of the Western World in the last 200 years, a party co-founded by the nation’s greatest president, revealed itself to be in the grip of a sexual hysteria. Gonzo radiohead Rush Limbaugh’s character assassination of not just one young woman but, by the simplest of extrapolations, tens of millions of women belied once and for all the right’s contention that the recent contraception controversy is about religious freedom. Though just enough bungling by the Obama administration allowed the ruse some oxygen for a while, the contention was always specious given Santorum’s promise, in an interview last October, to address the “libertine” nature of birth control from the Oval Office.
When the hysteria peaked with l’affaire Limbaugh last week, there was general bewilderment over whether Rush understood that the birth-control pill is not female Viagra, that a woman takes the same daily dosage of estrogen and progestin regardless of whether she’s going to have sex one time, a thousand times, or zero times (entirely leaving aside the fact that three out of five women take the pill for reasons having nothing to do with sex or pregnancy). Perhaps indeed it’s true that someone previously investigated for an oxycontin addiction would be of the mind-set to think of the pill in these terms; more likely, however—since no clear-headed person ever has called Limbaugh stupid—is that he understands the basics of contraception but wasn’t going to let them get in the way of invoking for his program’s listeners the sexual spectacle of orgiastic women caught on videotape. Thus the Limbaugh comments about Sandra Fluke transparently were not those of a naïf but rather a bully at best and a pervert at worst, with many shades of creep lying between the two. When women of whatever political stripe heard Limbaugh, they heard several millennia of familiar male piggery.
Just on cravenly political grounds, the response of the right should be more stupefying than it was. John McCain (whose condemnation of Limbaugh has been bracingly unequivocal and dishearteningly rare among conservatives) polled 43 percent of all women voters in 2008. At the rate the Republican Party is going, it will struggle to get 33 percent in 2012, leaving the party to try scaring up seven out of ten men (whom women outvote). That none of this had any apparent impact on Tuesday night’s result, that the candidates showed no more cognizance of what happened these past eight days with the female electorate than they did the Tuesday before or the Tuesday before that, and that Romney’s opportunism was so determinedly unfazed may mean—in terms of Republican prospects in November—that the more things stay the same, the more they change, and not for the better.