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Opinion: Columnists

Akin mess could be watershed moment for conservative movement

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Politics,Opinion,Philip Klein,Columnists,Campaign 2012,Politics Digest

Missouri Rep. Todd Akin's insensitive and ignorant comments about rape and pregnancy could cost Republicans a majority in the Senate. But in time, the episode may be remembered as an important development for the conservative movement.

In recent years, we've become used to a typical pattern when conservative candidates have come under fire for making controversial or ill-informed statements. Democrats and their liberal allies pounce, as do some Republicans and even conservative pundits. But many on the right are reluctant to join them, because they see a fellow conservative under attack by the Left. They recognize a double standard in the way the media treats mistakes by Republicans and Democrats. To this group, conservative pundits who join in the chorus of criticism are seen as weak-kneed bed-wetters who are doing the bidding of liberals.

This conflict is usually framed as one of the "grassroots" against "the establishment." It played out with the divergent reactions to Sarah Palin in 2008, as well as Senate candidates Sharron Angle and Christine O'Donnell in 2010.

But in the case of Akin, this usual cycle didn't hold. When Akin made his infamous comments about rape and pregnancy ("If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down"), the condemnation was swift and almost unanimous. It wasn't just liberals who were excoriating Akin, and it wasn't just establishment Republicans in Washington. The conservative base and Beltway Republicans united against Akin. Sean Hannity, who is typically very reluctant to criticize fellow conservatives, practically begged Akin to drop out of the race in radio interviews on Monday and Tuesday.

Perhaps the most interesting statement calling for Akin to step down came from the Tea Party Express, a group that played a huge role in making Sharron Angle the nominee in the 2010 Nevada Senate race. She went on to lose what seemed like a sure-thing race against the highly unpopular Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

"One of the lessons we learned in 2010 is that we need candidates who are not only conservative, but are capable of putting together a strong campaign against liberal opponents," the statement read. "Akin's frequent 'Bidenisms' are distracting from the important issues at hand."

To be sure, the Akin example has its own unique elements. During the competitive three-way primary, he was the choice of neither the Tea Party nor the establishment, and he actually received a boost from Democrats, who saw him as their weakest opponent. Also, his comments about rape and pregnancy were particularly egregious. But it's hard not to see a broader pattern developing.

The rise of Republicans such as Sens. Marco Rubio, Pat Toomey, Mike Lee and Senate candidate Ted Cruz has shown conservatives that they can better advance their cause when they offer candidates who are knowledgeable and articulate, and who take a deep interest in policy details.

In 2008, a big part of Palin's appeal to conservatives was cultural. As Cindy McCain described Palin, she was a "reform-minded, hockey-mommin', basketball-shootin', moose-huntin', fly-fishin', pistol-packing, mother of five." The fact that she wasn't adept at fielding interviews from the national press corps was promoted as evidence of her authenticity and deeper connection to the average American than the Washington elites.

Four years later, conservatives are elated at the selection of House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan as Mitt Romney's running mate. Although Ryan is an avid bow hunter and hails from the Midwest, what excites conservatives most about him are his policy smarts, his wonky understanding of budget minutiae, and his articulate case for capitalism and limited government. They aren't riled up about potential "gotcha" questions in interviews and debates -- they want to see Ryan school reporters and run circles around Vice President Biden.

When Akin took to Twitter this week to blame "liberal elites" for his predicament, it came off as ridiculous, because the harshest criticism was coming from conservatives. When all the dust settles on the Missouri Senate race, the Akin mess could be looked back upon as marking a shift in the standards that those on the Right apply to conservative candidates.

Philip Klein (pklein@washingtonexaminer.com) is a senior editorial writer for The Washington Examiner. Follow him on Twitter at @philipaklein.

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Philip Klein

Commentary Editor
The Washington Examiner