Todd Akin — a watershed moment for conservatives?

Phillip Klein argues that the reaction by Republicans to the Todd Akin mess seems to signal a new sophistication of 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.

To the extent that conservatives are more pragmatic this year than in 2010 , they are following the usual (though not invariable) pattern of an out-of-power political party or faction. Often, for example, such a party will nominate a strong ideological champion in the first presidential election after a defeat. When that candidate loses (and often he is crushed) the party takes a more pragmatic, less avowedly ideological approach the next time. Examples include 1956-1960 (Stevenson to Kennedy); 1964-1968 (Goldwater to Nixon); 1984-1988-1992 (Mondale to Dukakis to Clinton); and 2004-2008 (Kerry to Obama).

Reaching back to the 19th century, we can cite the Whig Party’s rejection of its founder, Henry Clay, in 1840, after the Jackson-Van Burn machine had repeatedly trounced the Whigs, in favor of the more or less apolitical war hero William Henry Harrison. The Republicans repeated something like this play when, in 1952, they rejected Robert Taft, Mr. Republican, in favor of Dwight Eisenhower, whose party affiliation had been in some doubt.

This year, the Republicans didn’t wait for a second presidential election to nominate a pragmatist. But that’s because (a) the ideologically oriented candidates favored by conservatives didn’t enter the race and (b) politics proceeds at a much faster pace these days.

As someone who criticized the selection of Sarah Palin and, especially, the nomination of Christine O’Donnell, I’d be delighted if, as Klein postulates, conservatives are holding conservative candidates to a higher standard than before. After all, a defeat in Missouri might not be so consequential if popular (but not conservative) Republican Mike Castle had defeated O’Donnell and gone on to capture Joe Biden’s Delaware Senate seat, as polls show he almost certainly would have done.

But for two reasons, it may be premature to concur fully with Klein’s thesis. First, Akin is, above all, a social conservative. Would conservatives be condemning him as roundly if he were, say, a leading champion of fiscal conservatism?

Second, and more importantly, the reaction to Akin’s remarks must be viewed in context of the presidential race, and in particular the fact that Paul Ryan agrees with Akin that abortions should not be permitted in cases of rape. More than anything else, I believe that this inconvenience explains the harsh reaction ( arguably unduly harsh) that has greeted Akin’s stupid comment. In the absence of this special circumstance, and in a year where the balance of power in the Senate didn’t seem quite so delicately poised, conservative criticism of Akin might well be more measured and less universal.

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