Despite his seemingly robotic demeanor, Mitt Romney is proving himself a bit of a rogue. His campaign has broken the cardinal rule of presidential races: pander and pivot. First the candidate secures the base during the primaries by pandering to party ideologues; then the candidate swiftly pivots to the center to attract swing voters and independents. Eric Fehrnstrom’s infamous Etch A Sketch comment back in March suggested that Romney was preparing to execute this venerable campaign two-step. But the choice of Paul Ryan as running mate obliterates the possibility of moderation. This campaign is going to run hard and fast to the right. Forget the pivot; they’re just going to pander.
Unlike Romney’s inconsistent but mostly centrist Massachusetts governing record, whose signature accomplishment was the model for the GOP-maligned “Obamacare,” Ryan’s ideological bona fides are unvarnished. And don’t be fooled: this is not about economics alone. Ryan is just as devoted to good old-fashioned moral conservatism, government small enough to fit on a vaginal probe. Ryan may have slipped his playbook into an Ayn Rand cover, but it was co-written by Ralph Reed.
Nowhere is this more apparent, or more important, than in Ryan’s record on reproductive rights. Romney may have flippantly suggested that he would eliminate Planned Parenthood, but Ryan has worked consistently to restrict women’s access to healthcare. It’s not just his fifty-nine votes to block or limit reproductive rights that are of concern; it’s the absolutist nature of his positions. He rejects rape and incest as mitigating circumstances for abortion. He won’t even consider the possibility that women’s moral autonomy or constitutional rights are sufficient reasons for access.
Ryan is one of sixty-four Congressional co-sponsors of HR 212, a “personhood” bill that gives legal rights to fertilized eggs. Last November a similar measure was soundly defeated by 57 percent of voters in that liberal bastion, Mississippi. (Mississippi!) Ryan co-sponsored a bill too extreme for a state that has only one abortion clinic, a state whose policies have effectively made it impossible for most doctors to perform—or for most women to access—an abortion. It may be time to update the title of Nina Simone’s iconic song from “Mississippi Goddam” to “Paul Ryan Goddam.” Ryan’s role in HR 212 isn’t just the symbolic co-sponsorship of a bill with little likelihood of passage. He explicitly articulated his case for personhood in a 2010 Heritage Foundation article, in which he parrots the familiar conservative case that America’s failure to recognize fetuses as persons is the same as our nation’s historical failure to recognize the humanity of enslaved black people. Therefore, Roe v. Wade is the twentieth-century equivalent of the 1857 Dred Scott decision.
With Ryan and women’s health, there is no middle ground; there is only his moral judgment. And despite his avowed libertarianism on economic issues, on women’s health and rights Ryan is willing to use the full force of government to limit the freedom of dissenting citizens to exercise their opposing judgments.
True, Ryan is merely running for vice president—and with the singular exception of Dick Cheney, vice presidents haven’t had much significant policy influence. But with the Ryan pick, Romney has signaled that his moderation on women’s health issues is over. He is casting his lot with the most extreme elements of the anti-choice movement. It should hardly be surprising, then, that within a week of the announcement, GOP Senate candidate Todd Akin told Fox News that he saw little reason to consider abortion in the case of rape or incest, because pregnancy rarely results from sexual assault. According to Akin, “If it’s legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” Romney and other Republicans swiftly denounced the remark, but it’s easy to see why a Ryan candidacy might have led Akin to believe that such a position would be acceptable.
For more than a decade, GOP presidential candidates have pandered to pro-lifers but pivoted to a more moderate position in the general election. Now Romney is doing the opposite. This is, if nothing else, a fascinating political strategy. It forces the question: What’s the electoral arithmetic guiding Camp Romney? They seem to expect women swing voters to discount Ryan’s abysmal record.
Perhaps they will, but after spending a half-hour on the StairMaster recently, I’m not so sure. Cardio machines are the one place I indulge my guilty pleasure of reading women’s magazines. I was startled to see a deeply personal letter in the September issue of Women’s Health from editor in chief Michele Promaulayko titled “Your Body Is a Battleground.” In it she recounts her own experience of receiving sexual health counseling and contraception from Planned Parenthood when she was 15. Promaulayko directs readers to an article by Gretchen Voss that urges: “Read on to learn how your choices are endangered and what you need to do to keep them from becoming extinct.” It’s a no-nonsense, well-researched, action-focused piece whose bottom line is that voting for someone with a record like Ryan’s is tantamount to voting against the health of women. And this is in a magazine whose other articles tell readers “How to Have a Flat Belly in 15 Minutes” and keeps them abreast of the “10 Hot Hair Color Trends.” A lefty political rag it is not.
These women are interested in choice. And if choice appears in a magazine this mainstream, this close to the election, there’s good reason to think huge numbers of women will be prepared to demonstrate that at the polls. More than the breathless angst of progressive commentators, more than e-mail bombardments by feminist organizations, more than the slight panic in Romney’s tone as he reprimanded Akin, this article in Women’s Health has me convinced that by choosing Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney has ensured he will not be president of the United States.