NEAL CONAN, HOST:
As a deadline looms this evening, and pressure continues to build, Missouri Republican Todd Akin shows no sign that he plans to withdraw from the U.S. Senate race. After saying he misspoke on Sunday, he went on Fox News yesterday to disavow his comment that women can rarely get pregnant from what he called "legitimate rape." Today, he issued a new TV ad.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV AD)
REP. TODD AKIN: Fact is, rape could lead to pregnancy. The truth is, rape has many victims. The mistake I made was in the words I said, not in the heart I hold. I ask for your forgiveness.
CONAN: In the Washington Post today, columnist Ruth Marcus described Congressman Akin's remarks as so offensive and ignorant, that they scarcely require a response. What's more interesting, she wrote, is that this episode - reveals about the most fundamental of political instincts, self-preservation. Ruth Marcus joins us now from a studio at the Washington Post. Nice to have you back on the program.
RUTH MARCUS: Hi. Thanks for having me.
CONAN: And let's talk about self-preservation on several fronts, beginning with the candidate himself and the progression of apology.
MARCUS: It's actually - if there was a grovel chart, I don't know if the grovel chart makes you go lower or higher, but there would be a rather steep descent or a steep climb, depending on how you want to do it, listening to the candidate. I think that the notion that it wasn't - doesn't matter what words you say but what's in your heart, I think he left out one thing, which is what's in your brain. And the part we still have not gotten any kind of clear answer from, from Congressman Akin is what in the world was he thinking that there was some kind of anti-baby juice that women can secrete to prevent pregnancy in the case of rape and where he got this completely wackadoodle idea from.
CONAN: An so he went from - on Sunday on his Facebook page saying, well, I misspoke. I got the wording wrong, which is something he repeated again today.
MARCUS: Yeah. Well, that plus. He's gotten just increasingly - because as the pressure has mounted - and it's been fascinating to watch the responses from the congressmen, from the Republican Party, from Governor Romney and his running mate. As the public outrage on this has mounted, their apologies have become increasingly full-throated so that, as you mentioned, the congressman started out with I misspoke, like that's a little bit of a bizarre concept. Misspeak is when you accidentally picked the wrong word or say President Clinton when you meant President Obama. This was not misspeaking. As I wrote, this was mis-thinking.
And then similarly, you saw Governor Romney. His campaign several hours after this broke managed to choke out a press release comment saying that the governor and Congressman Ryan disagree with this view. And by morning, disagreement had become finding it offensive and unacceptable. So it's sort of a classic political story of how candidates follow the public polls.
CONAN: And his colleagues - his would-be colleagues in the United States Senate, basically, as you said, throwing him under the bus.
MARCUS: Absolutely. There's sort of two responses that politicians of the same party have when one of their own makes a mistake. The first order response - and as I wrote, we saw this, I think, with President Obama and the ad that created quite a bit of controversy about whether Governor Romney had - might have had something to do with the death of a laid-off worker whose wife ended up losing health insurance and dying of cancer. The first thing that politicians want to do is to minimize the damage and to say, oh, there's really no problem here, but you only do that if you can get away with keeping yourself on the same stage and in the same grouping as the guy. Akin's comments were so off-the-charts unacceptable that that approach didn't work. You couldn't stick with him. You had to completely disassociate yourself from him. And so that's the phenomenon that we've witnessed over the last - I guess it's been not that much more than 24 hours, but it feels like it.
CONAN: It sure does. And so from circling the wagons, they've gone to a full-throated charge away from...
MARCUS: Yes, yes.
CONAN: ...the endangered cat.
MARCUS: First, circle wagons, then drive them.
CONAN: Then drive them. And it's interesting also, as you look at it, that there is a calculation here that he could cost the Republicans, maybe, a majority in the United States Senate.
MARCUS: Well, if you're a Republican, and particularly a Republican senator like, say, Senator McConnell, the would-be majority leader, or Senator Cornyn, the head of the Republicans' campaign arm, and you said, pick a Senate candidate, one of our Senate candidates, who you would least like to hear say a really stupid thing because this is a seat that you really, really, really need in order to win the majority, you - there are a couple of other possibilities.
You might come up with George Allen in Virginia. But one of the ones that you would come up with that - the guy you least want to hear something problematic from because you need that seat to win, you come up with Todd Akin. And so there he goes. He was viewed by Claire McCaskill, the Republican senator, as the candidate that she most wanted to run against.
CONAN: I have to say, I think you misspoke.
MARCUS: Yeah. I'm sorry?
CONAN: You - she's the Democratic senator.
MARCUS: I'm sorry. Oh, I meant the incumbent. I'm sorry. There is a classic misspeak, and I might have even mis-thought. But she is the - he is the candidate that she most - she, Claire McCaskill, the Democratic incumbent - most clearly wanted to run against. And he came forward and demonstrated to her delight and to the discomfiture of all of his would-be Republican colleagues exactly why she wanted to run against him.
CONAN: She might have liked to run against Todd Akin of all the choices available, but she also seemed to work to engineer that possibility.
MARCUS: Indeed she did, and this is another really delicious piece of this story. So while you have the Republicans busy doing their absolute best to shove congressman Akin out the door and get him off the ticket, you have Senator McCaskill who ran ads during the Republican primary. And as you noted correctly, she's a Democrat. She ran ads about her would-be opponents during the primary.
The ad that she ran about congressman Akin called him a - the most conservative in the race and a true - I'm using not the exact words, but a true opponent of big government. These are words that maybe might be hurtful to him in a general election campaign, but it was practically snuggling up to him and urging Republican voters to support him in the primary. And a superPAC that is backing Senator McCaskill was even more fulsome in its praise of Mr. Akin or in its attacks on his opponents.
And so having helped quietly and not so subtly to engineer his appearance and his victory as the GOP nominee, she then came yesterday as all of these Republicans were trying to get him off the ticket and saying, no, no, no, the voters of the state have spoken. Of course it would be terrible. There would be a terrible backlash if he were to be pushed off the ticket by these outside forces. So if you're an outsider, like me, you just - and a political observer, you really just have to giggle at this process.
CONAN: Because Senator McCaskill is clearly hoping to keep the weakest possible candidate in the race.
MARCUS: Well, she's simultaneously making the argument, look, this just proves that we can't risk having this guy representing us in the United States Senate and saying - but he must stay on the ticket because I want to run against him.
CONAN: As you pointed out in your piece, this was a tactic that Harry Reid, the Democratic leader in the United States Senate, used in Nevada earlier when he got the - was extremely fortunate to run against Sharron Angle.
MARCUS: He had a series of fortunate events that led to his really unexpected in many circles re-election. He - his superPAC - and this is a superPAC that is actually connected to - run by some of the same folks as the superPAC that intervened in the Missouri Republican primary - his superPAC with connections to him similarly intervened in the Republican primary in Nevada two years ago.
And lo and behold, instead of running against somebody with more experience and less - fewer problems, Senator Reid got to run against Sharron Angle. And that - he turns out to still be Senator Reid and still be the Senate majority leader.
CONAN: Now, you can - is there anything wrong with trying to pick the opponent you're most likely to beat?
MARCUS: No. There's nothing wrong with it. I think the - I think spending money, running ads, intervening in the other party's primary and doing it quite so overtly - candidates have always tried to do their best to handpick their opponents. But I think the overtness of it is a slightly new phenomenon, and the complete lack of any embarrassment about it is a slightly new phenomenon.
And I think one of the things that I think made the Akin twist to me so delicious was Senator McCaskill's desire to support the wishes of the Republican electorate in her state and sticking up for their choice, which was simultaneously, she argued, such a foolish choice and one that those big, bad bullying, outside, national Republicans ought to be respecting.
So I - you either roll your eyes or you laugh at what politicians will do in support of their most fundamental instincts, which as I said is to preserve their own political viability.
CONAN: It strikes me as not being all that different from what the Chinese badminton team did to try to get a better opponents in the next round.
MARCUS: Well, except there's one difference, right? The badminton team got thrown out of the Olympics. And in this one, if it works, you get elected to the U.S. Senate.
CONAN: It's also interesting, Senator McCaskill has said previously she's going to be much too busy campaigning to go to the Democratic National Convention to be photographed, presumably, with President Obama. She doesn't want to do that. I would think, now, congressman Akin may find himself much too busy to go to Tampa.
MARCUS: Or if he goes to Tampa, I think people are going to be much too busy to see him. And some of those invitations that he might have had might be sorely lacking.
I have to say, I'm a huge believer in the laws of political physics. The first one is gravity. And the sheer idiocy of what he said seems to me - it is going to drag him down. The second one is momentum. And you saw yesterday what was clearly a coordinated message on the part of Senator McConnell, Senator Cornyn and Governor Romney, to say, you've got 24 hours to think it over, buddy. They left the buddy out. Think what's best for you, what's best for your family, what's best for the Republican Party. They didn't say that, not necessarily in that order. It's the way we're thinking about it. And it may be that Mr. Akin will hold on past close of business today. But I have to say, I'll be just stunned if he is the nominee who's on the ticket in November.
CONAN: The deadline is 5 P.M., Central Time. Ruth Marcus, thank you very much.
MARCUS: Thanks a lot.
CONAN: Ruth Marcus is an editorial writer for The Washington Post. She joined us from a studio at the newspaper. Her piece is called "Self-Preservation, Meet Cynicism." You can find a link to it on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. And this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.