In focusing on the silliness of a law student’s becoming a national voice in the matter of what employers’ health plans should cover, that portion of the Right who mocked Fluke on those grounds undermined themselves: If what she thought and said was really unworthy of the attention it was receiving, why add to it? Their tactic played directly into the Democrats’ narrative about those mean Republicans: Express a view they disagree with and they’ll sneer about your sex life on national airwaves for weeks.
It is here that Republicans usually object that the mainstream media make a big deal out of Republican offenses like Rush’s use of the word “slut” but ignore comparable offenses on the Left. After all, don’t prominent liberals spew bile regularly without consequence? (Well, not always: Ed Schultz used the same word, “slut,” in a furious rant about Laura Ingraham and was suspended for a week without pay.) Entirely separate from the entirely justified fury over media bias is the question of how we want our movement to talk about the issues. If you sneer at people, you cannot expect them to agree with you.
Gay marriage and sexual taboos: It seems to be a knee-jerk, not-really-in-jest comparison when some conservatives discuss the issue of gay marriage: If two men or two women can get married, why not a man and an animal? GOP congressional candidate Bob Guida made the offhand comparison in New Hampshire in 2010; in October 2012, an Illinois state representative made similar remarks at a tea-party rally.
During last year’s presidential campaign, Rick Santorum received criticism for his 2003 comment that “in every society, the definition of marriage has not ever to my knowledge included homosexuality. That’s not to pick on homosexuality. It’s not, you know, man on child, man on dog, or whatever the case may be.” Santorum insists that the aim of the comment was to emphasize that he views homosexuality as different from pedophilia and bestiality, but he did bring up those emotionally charged taboo behaviors out of the blue while discussing his objections to gay marriage.
At a recent conservative gathering, one well-known pundit exclaimed, “Why can’t I marry my cat?”
Now, think about how this argument sounds to any gay or lesbian or to anyone who loves them — to their mothers, fathers, brothers, and friends. It takes a consensual relationship that more and more Americans see practiced by their friends, neighbors, and relatives and equates it with criminal acts, among the most reviled in our society. Put another way, if some jerk in a bar came up and compared your relationship to your spouse to bestiality, you would probably be sorely tempted to knock his teeth out.
Are gays and lesbians welcome in the GOP or conservative movement? Arguments and jokes like that send the signal they aren’t.
Abortion and rape: Of all the facets of the abortion debate, the most difficult ones for pro-lifers are the cases of rape or incest or where the life or health of the mother is at stake (a small percentage of all abortions). Many self-described pro-lifers are justifiably hesitant to legally require a woman who has been raped to bring the child of her attacker to term.
Todd Akin and then Richard Mourdock confirmed every wavering woman’s suspicion of pro-life conservatives when the former suggested that he understood nothing about the biology of human reproduction and when the latter contended that rape-generated pregnancy “is something that God intended to happen.” Yes, some women who have been raped have carried the child to term and wonderful people have been born as a result. But many women, maybe most, are horrified by the idea that the law could require rape victims to bear the children of the men who assaulted them. For a pair of aspiring GOP senators to utter awful comments, colossally devoid of empathy for the victims of rape, cemented the image of a party so mean they couldn’t even remember to mention the plight of the mother.
The incentives of controversy: For some of the most prominent figures associated with the GOP and with conservatism, controversy is almost always a good thing. Controversy turns heads, gets people tuning in, talking about them, builds ratings. But controversy alone does not necessarily persuade.
Perhaps the most vivid example of that comes from Ann Coulter, who has insisted that it’s acceptable to use the term “raghead” in discussions of the Muslim world. She used it at the 2005 Conservative Political Action Conference, and the next year a Muslim-American conservative begged her to stop: “It kind of turns a lot of Muslim Americans off, and it’s kind of hard to recruit them.” She replied, “I made a few jokes, and they killed 3,000 Americans — fair trade.”
Coulter and other reliable sources of controversy will cite the long American tradition of provocative speech and insist that there’s a raw, “tell it like it is” honesty in such comments. But what hard truth or deep intellectual insight is brought to the table by the term “raghead”? Would we on the right be so casual about a term that mocked yarmulkes or crucifixes? (In South Carolina’s 2010 gubernatorial primary, a GOP state legislator used the term “raghead” in referring to the president and Nikki Haley, a Republican candidate of Indian descent.)
In the race for the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee in 2009, controversy erupted over aspiring chairman Chip Saltsman’s sending RNC members a CD that included satirist Paul Shanklin’s song “Barack the Magic Negro,” a reference to the Hollywood trope of a mystical African-American character who provides advice and ancient wisdom to a white protagonist. That explanation was lost in much of the controversy. When trying to persuade skeptical African-Americans that the GOP really understands the problems facing them, do we want to spend a lot of time insisting that there’s nothing even vaguely offensive or off-key about a potential party chairman distributing material that includes the antiquated term “Negro”?
Did Romney lose the election because of these long-ago controversies? No, but each time someone associated with the Right blurts out something like this, it adds a little fuel to the fire of the argument that Republicans don’t respect, understand, or welcome minorities.
In each one of these cases, the GOP and the Right have to think hard about whether this is the hill they want to die on. If you’re a wishy-washy, not-that-tuned-in, relatively apolitical voter, how do these controversies make you feel about Republicans?
Certainly, the media employ double standards in their decisions about which cases of meanness and nastiness are most newsworthy, and we cannot expect a movement made up of millions of people to avoid uttering repellent comments. But for some conservatives, at least every once in a while, those labels “mean” and “nasty” are well earned.