Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan were among the first Republicans to condemn Todd Akin, the GOP Senate candidate in Missouri who over the weekend suggested women’s bodies naturally thwart pregnancy in cases of “legitimate rape.” Maybe Romney and Ryan were anticipating the political backlash and maybe they were genuinely appalled at what Akin said. I really don’t know. I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt—and to give them credit for reacting so quickly.
But the official campaign statement included a telling postscript: “a Romney-Ryan administration would not oppose abortion in instances of rape.” The clarification was necessary because Ryan has opposed such exceptions in the past. As Newsweek’s Michelle Goldberg and Salon’s Alex Seitz-Wald have pointed out, Ryan's record on abortion is extremely conservative, even by Republican standards. He has a perfect 100 rating from the National Right to Life Committee. And he’s lived up to that rating by, among other things, co-sponsoring a bill that declared “personhood” begins at fertilization—a legal standard that, if ever applied, could outlaw not just abortion but also in vitro fertilization, intrauterine devices, and some oral contraceptives. Akin was one of the other co-sponsors.
Ryan also co-sponsored (with Akin, again) a bill that would have modified the existing ban on federal funding of abortion. Presently, the law allows federal funds to support abortions in case of rape and incest. The bill would have narrowed the exceptions to cases of “forcible rape” and, for incest, cases involving minors. The legal implications of the proposed standard were unclear. But, as Nick Baumann of Mother Jones explained at the time, abortion rights advocates feared (reasonably) that victims raped while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, victims with diminished mental capacity, and victims of date rape might not be eligible if the new definition ever took effect. (For more background, see Ian Millhiser of ThinkProgress.) The bill was so controversial that House Republicans withdrew that language.
Romney would like us to ignore this part of Ryan’s record, just as he’d like us to ignore Ryan’s advocacy of immediate cuts to Medicare and his crusade to privatize Social Security. Under different circumstances, Romney might have a point.
A presidential candidate’s record is obviously more important than his or her running mate’s. And Romney has said consistently (I think) that he supports the rape and incest exceptions, while promising that Social Security is off limits for budget cuts and vowing, however implausibly, to undo the Medicare cuts that Ryan has supported.
But a vice presidential nominee’s history matters, too, particularly when we’re talking about recent history. The two abortion proposals and the budget with the Medicare budgets are all from 2011. Yes, that’s last year. Ryan’s advocacy of Social Security dates back farther, to the Bush Administration. But in politics that’s not exactly an eternity. These positions tell us about Ryan’s values and priorities—that he is no friend of Medicare and Social Security, that he would prohibit victims of rape and incest from getting abortions if he could. And that, in turn, tells us something about Romney.
Romney keeps insisting that he chose the man, not the agenda, when he asked Ryan to join him on the ticket. But during the primaries Romney was very clearly praising the man and the agenda, holding Ryan up as an intellectual leader for the Republican Party and famously condemning a rival, Newt Gingrich, who had the temerity to suggest that Ryan’s ideas were too politically toxic to gain wide acceptance. Romney had in mind Ryan’s economic agenda, but he was also trying to please the GOP’s conservative base. And nothing he’s done since that time suggests he’d stop wooing them as president.
And let’s not forget that, if Romney wins, Ryan will be one heartbeat away from the presidency. You shouldn’t choose a president by focusing exclusively on the vice presidential nominee. But you also shouldn’t choose a president by pretending the vice presidential nominee doesn’t exist. That means considering the nominee’s record—which, in this case, includes positions on abortion that the majority of Americans could not stomach.
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