When the Sex Scandal Counts More Than the Rape-Redefining Abortion Law

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Aug. 1 2013 9:50 AM

When the Sex Scandal Counts More Than the Rape-Redefining Abortion Law  

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Todd Akin's votes weren't actions, were they?

Photo by Whitney Curtis/Getty Images

Last week I reprinted, for your eye-rolling pleasure, some of the Republican campaign material urging reporters to cover the "war on actual women." Republicans, who still bristle at the unfairness of having to answer Todd Akin questions in 2012, have worked above and below the radar to call the press "hypocritical" if it doesn't get Democrats to squirm over the Weiner and Filner scandals.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

It worked! This week, finally, the AP, NPR, and the Washington Post have taken a "teach the controversy" approach to the "war on women." It started in the White House briefings, because of course it did. On Monday:

Q: The President, as the leader of the Democratic Party, does he have an opinion of whether or not Anthony Weiner should stay or go as far as the race is concerned there?
EARNEST:  Not one that I've heard. 
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Q: When so many leading Democrats have spoken out and the President himself has spoken out to members of the armed services very publicly given the circumstances taking place there?
CARNEY: Well, I think you’re talking about separate issues here.  He’s Commander-in-Chief -- he doesn’t oversee municipalities.
Q:  And the head of the Democratic Party.
CARNEY: Be that as it may, I don’t have comment on that any more than I’ve had comment on other similar issues.

That was a dodge: A much more leading question elicited an actual response.

Q: Given that the President, domestically and abroad, so often speaks about respect for women, creating a society where women can function at the highest levels, doesn’t the fact that there are high-level controversies involving objectification and in some cases harassment of women involving the Democratic Party -- doesn’t the President's silence say something in and of itself?
CARNEY: Ari, no. The President is focused on what we can do for the middle class in this country, what we can do to help the economy grow, what we can do together through a grand bargain for the middle class to reform our business tax code in a way that’s beneficial for American businesses and in a way that allows us to invest in the economy so that it helps the middle class grow and be more secure.
I understand the allure of issues like this in the media, but it is not what -- and I do understand it, and I’m not being critical of it.  But I’m saying that the President believes his job is not to comment on those issues, but to focus on what he can do to get this economy growing faster and creating more jobs. That is his fundamental preoccupation right now, and it will be for every of the 1,269 days I believe left in his presidency.

Let's establish two things: If half of what people say about Filner is true, every human should want him to resign; and, Carney's answer was a little disingenuous. Clearly the president is not just focused on the pocketbooks of the middle class for the next three and a half years. Nine days ago he entered the White House briefing room to weigh in on the George Zimmerman verdict. In his role as the nation's disappointed dad, it's perfectly natural to expect him to weigh in on the occasional sex scandal.

But that's not all the coverage is saying. The AP's story on this is a masterwork of he-said-she-said, telling us that Republicans consider the White House hypocritical, while the White House is "saying" that the 2012 condemnation of Todd Akin was "in response to the policy implications of the controversial views."

If only we knew what the president said at the time! Oh, wait, we do. On Aug. 20, asked about Akin, Obama referred abstractly to abortion bills in the House that added a stricter definition of rape—"forcible" rape.

Q: You’re no doubt aware of the comments that the Missouri Senate candidate, Republican Todd Akin, made on rape and abortion.  I wondered if you think those views represent the views of the Republican Party in general.  They’ve been denounced by your own rival and other Republicans.  Are they an outlier or are they representative?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, let me, first of all, say the views expressed were offensive.  Rape is rape.  And the idea that we should be parsing and qualifying and slicing what types of rape we’re talking about doesn’t make sense to the American people and certainly doesn’t make sense to me. So what I think these comments do underscore is why we shouldn’t have a bunch of politicians, a majority of whom are men, making health care decisions on behalf of women.  And so, although these particular comments have led Governor Romney and other Republicans to distance themselves, I think the underlying notion that we should be making decisions on behalf of women for their health care decisions -- or qualifying forcible rape versus non-forcible rape -- I think those are broader issues, and that is a significant difference in approach between me and the other party.  But I don’t think that they would agree with the Senator from Missouri in terms of his statement, which was way out there.
Q: Should he drop out of the race?
THE PRESIDENT: He was nominated by the Republicans in Missouri. I’ll let them sort that out.

That last answer isn't really comparable to what reporters want to hear from Obama on Weiner or Filner—Democrats by no means wanted Akin to quit the race. But the president's main pivot was to abortion law—"a bunch of politicians, a majority of whom are men, making health care decisions on behalf of women," he said, deploying the preferred euphemism. Obviously 40-odd percent of female voters, and almost all conservatives, think that it's a horrible calumny to define access to birth control and abortion as sacred "women's issues," but that's what Obama was doing. Doing anything else wouldn't have made sense, really, because both parties sometimes have to answer for sex scandals, but the parties have huge differences on reproductive rights law.

So, how does the AP remember the Akin blowback?

While the controversies surrounding Akin and Murdock focused on words, the spectacles involving Weiner and Filner center on actions.

Well, yes, Weiner actually did send adulterous dick pics to young women, while Akin did not actually throw his body between a woman and a doctor and ask the woman to prove that her rape was legitimate. Akin did endorse that new definition of rape in the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act, voted to bar Planned Parenthood from receiving government funds, and voted to allow hospitals to opt out of performing emergency abortions or transferring women to places where they could receive them. Sydney Leathers is famous; most women impregnated by rapists and living in states that roll back abortion access aren't famous. The implication of the AP's phrasing, surely unintentional, is that the famous woman has a real grievance, and the other women don't. That's how the GOP is able to refer to the "war on women" meme of 2012 as an unfair cruel Democratic overreach (news flash, rhetoric gets heated), completely unrelated to the new abortion laws passed by Republicans who won control of states in that election.

By a couple of measures, the GOP campaign to shame Democrats over Filner, Weiner et al has succeeded. The media's covering the campaign! But that says more about the media's standards than the content of the charges.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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