Why Richard Mourdock Matters for the Presidential Election

Richard Mourdock, the GOP candidate for Senate in Indiana, has joined the growing ranks of Republican men who openly oppose “rape and incest” exceptions in anti-abortion laws. For Mourdock, the reasoning is straightforward—every life is a “gift from God.” Here’s the full quote:

“I struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize life is that gift from God,” Mourdock said at a debate. “And I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.”

That Mourdock is not a victim of rape or incest—and biologically unable to become pregnant—seems not to have factored into his “struggle” on the issue. That aside, there’s nothing surprising about Mourdock’s view. It was echoed in Todd Akin’s now-infamous statement about “legitimate rape,” and Illinois Rep. Joe Walsh’s claim that no woman would ever need an abortion to save her life.

It forms the basis for bills like the Sanctity of Human Life Act, which would grant legal rights to fertilized eggs, and make some forms of contraception—to say nothing of abortion—the legal equivalent of murder. This bill, of course, was co-sponsored by Paul Ryan, the current GOP nominee for vice president—and supported by the vast majority of Republican lawmakers in Congress. Even Mitt Romney, now accepted as a moderate by most of the press, has given his support for a national abortion ban—he would be “delighted” to sign one if it came to his desk.

All of which means that Mourdock’s view—there is no reason to give an exception to any abortion—is held by the GOP writ large. The only difference is that most Republicans are able to state it in more artful and less offensive terms.

There’s a broader point to this. During election season, voters often treat candidates as if they’re autonomous from the party they represent: It’s why Obama was able to sell himself as “post-partisan” despite his standard-issue Democratic views, and it’s why Mitt Romney has been able to reinvent himself as a “moderate” despite 18 months of running to the right and campaigning as the “severe” conservative in the race.

But this is nonsense. Even the best, most unifying presidents are representatives and advocates for their parties. Abraham Lincoln was a staunch partisan who ran a ruthless campaign against George McClellan and the Democratic Party in the 1864 election. Franklin Roosevelt tried to engineer a lasting Democratic majority on the Supreme Court, and fought hard against his GOP opponents at every turn. Hell, even Dwight Eisenhower elevated Richard Nixon to national prominence, partly to placate conservative Republicans who weren't sure about him.

If elected, Mitt Romney will do what all presidents do: Try to build a lasting advantage for his party, as well as implement its main objectives. And in the case of the modern Republican Party, one major objective is the radical restriction of abortion rights. It animates everything from their base—evangelical and conservative Catholic voters—to the kind of people they choose for the federal bench. A Romney victory is likely to produce an anti-Roe v. Wade majority on the Court.

When you elect a president, you aren’t just choosing that person—you’re endorsing their judgment on executive branch appointments, Federal Reserve board members, Supreme Court Justices, and the thousands of offices a president has to fill. Those people don’t come from a pool of generic “qualified people”—they come from a pool of policy experts, economics, lawyers, politicians, and others who are associated with the party or its particular priorities.

There are a few implications to this. The first is that any new administration will necessarily be compromised of people from the nearest administration of the same party. After all, those are the people with experience. A Romney administration will be staffed, from top to bottom, with people from the Bush administration. That's already the case with Romney’s national security and economic team.

Even more important, however, is the fact that when you elect a president, you’re also empowering that president’s congressional allies. Republican-leaning independents dismayed by Nancy Pelosi’s influence in the 111th Congress should have thought about that before they cast a vote for Obama in 2008. Likewise, if you’re unhappy with congressional Republicans, it’s probably not a good idea to vote for Romney.

Mourdock provides a perfect example of this. Yesterday, Team Romney released an ad endorsing Mourdock for Senate. If elected, will Mourdock serve as a partisan Republican? Absolutely, and that’s the point. Romney’s promise of bipartisanship aside, he understands that he needs GOP allies if he’s to push the agenda of the Republican Party. It’s why this video, released this morning by the Democratic National Committee, is so effective:

The party is always more important than the person. Romney has softened his tone on a whole host of issues, and his history suggests that the softer Romney might be the "real" Romney. But as the leader of the Republican Party, this moderation won’t last. Romney may not advocate legislation that would restrict abortion, but he’ll sign anti-abortion bills that come to his desk, and he’ll appoint judges who take a hard line against reproductive rights. He might not advocate big cuts in social spending, but he’ll sign the Ryan budget if it comes to his desk. A President Romney will face serious political pressure from the right, and he’ll act accordingly.