When Republicans Eat Their Own

As Todd Akin learned, some gaffes are just too gaffe-y.

It has often been stated that the 2012 election cycle is the nastiest and most negative in history. I’m not sure about that, but it’s certainly been the campaign most dominated by gaffes.

Just about every week of the past year, candidates and their surrogates have misspoken, said things accidentally (or purposely) racist, sexist, off-message or just blatantly untrue. About 95 percent of mainstream political coverage has been about these gaffes, the responses to them, and subsequent arguments over whose gaffe was worse.

But the comments over the weekend about “legitimate rape” by Rep. Todd Akin, the Republican nominee for Missouri’s U.S. Senate seat, broke new ground.

It’s hard to pinpoint what was most ignorant about the statement: the use of the phrase “legitimate rape,” as if there is such a thing, or the scientifically nonsensical belief that women are able to spontaneously reject pregnancies depending on whether they were raped.

That statement was so disastrous that Akin was instantly denounced by all sides of the political spectrum, including both presidential candidates and even hyperpartisan conservative media figures like Sean Hannity, who implored Akin to drop out of the race. Liberals heard Akin’s comments as another—and even worse—manifestation of the war on women. Conservatives, and especially pro-lifers, heard it as a guy who seemed to believe that women have the physical ability to spontaneously self-abort, and that such a thing is advisable.

And that’s what’s so shocking about the comments. These days, in most gaffe controversies, Republicans will line up behind their own side no matter what, trying to find a way to either defend the statement, compare it favorably to gaffes by the other side, or—if all else fails—blame the media. The final two months of Herman Cain’s presidential bid, for instance, consisted of virtually nothing but the latter.

What Akin said, on the other hand, was so over-the-top that most of the GOP realizes he could cost the party that Senate seat, and with it, the Senate itself. Hence the calls, from those who usually demand no compromise and no apology under any circumstances, for Akin to step aside. As of the Tuesday afternoon ballot deadline, Akin had refused to drop out of the race.

The other disturbing thing about the comments is that Akin managed to state something that just about everyone who’s ever had seventh grade sex-ed knows is false. Then again, decades of opposition to sex education programs may have had their bad effects. Remember Michele Bachmann—before she graduated to full-on McCarthyismclaiming a constituent told her that an HPV vaccine caused her daughter to develop adult-onset mental retardation? Or Rush Limbaugh and other conservatives who seemed to believe, during the Sandra Fluke controversy, that the more sex you have, the more birth control you need?

Will the Akin comments affect the election? They’ve probably taken the Missouri Senate seat out of play and made Democratic retention of the Senate more likely. But will this be a game-changing moment for the presidential race? I doubt it. Chances are we’ll have 40 more controversies like this between now and November.