The 'stupid party': Is GOP's concern what's said or how it's said?

Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) and former party chief Haley Barbour disparage anew 'stupid' comments about rape and abortion by a few GOP candidates. It's hard to tell if the concern is mainly about style or substance.

Danny Johnston/AP/File
In this file photo taken last July, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal speaks in Hot Springs, Ark. Jindal called on the GOP to 'stop being the stupid party,' at a gathering Thursday of the Republican National Committee (RNC) in Charlotte, N.C.

It's the stupidity, stupid. That's essentially the warning to fellow Republicans from party heavyweights like former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.

At a gathering Thursday of the Republican National Committee (RNC) in Charlotte, N.C., Governor Jindal – a potential presidential candidate in 2016 – called on the GOP to "stop being the stupid party." "I'm serious," he added. "It’s time for a new Republican Party that talks like adults.... It's no secret we had a number of Republicans that damaged the brand [last] year with offensive and bizarre comments. I'm here to say we’ve had enough of that."

Mr. Barbour, a former RNC chairman, made essentially the same charge Friday on "CBS This Morning," saying comments about rape and abortion in the past election cycle from several Republican Senate candidates hurt the entire party. "The comments they made were stupid comments, offensive comments, and in today’s world when a candidate in one state says something, the negative effect of that can spill over to other candidates," he said.

Both men were referring to the much-publicized, and much-derided, remarks of former Rep. Todd Akin of Missouri ("if it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down") and former Indiana state Treasurer Richard Mourdock ("even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, it is something that God intended to happen").

The comments contributed to – and may have been responsible for – Republican Senate losses in states that the party otherwise had very good chances of winning. Moreover, the media attention they received may even have played a part in Mitt Romney's loss to President Obama, by turning some moderate women from the Republican Party.

Jindal and Barbour are only the latest voices within the GOP to warn against alienating whole segments of voters. But hearing the warning is one thing, and heeding it appears to be quite another. Recently, Rep. Phil Gingrey (R) of Georgia revived the controversy by defending Mr. Akin's comments at a local chamber of commerce breakfast in Georgia: "A scared-to-death 15-year-old that becomes impregnated by her boyfriend and then has to tell her parents ... might on some occasion say, ‘Hey, I was raped.’ That’s what [Akin] meant when he said legitimate rape versus non-legitimate rape. I don’t find anything so horrible about that."

All this has been damaging to the Republican Party brand, but the "stupid" charge in particular also raises some pointed questions. Are Republicans such as Jindal and Barbour saying they want the party to moderate its official position on social issues like abortion? Or are they saying they don't want candidates to talk in such explicit terms about what they actually believe, even if it largely comports with party policy?

On abortion, neither Akin, nor Representative Gingrey, nor the 2012 Republican Party Platform makes any exceptions for rape. "We assert the sanctity of human life and affirm that the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed," the GOP platform states. "We support a human life amendment to the Constitution and endorse legislation to make clear that the Fourteenth Amendment's protections apply to unborn children."

And this week in New Mexico, a Republican state lawmaker proposed a bill that would make it a felony – punishable by three years in prison – to get an abortion in cases of rape, by saying that terminating the pregnancy would be akin to "tampering with evidence."

That's out of step with most Americans on the issue. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll out this week found that a majority of Americans now believe abortion should be legal in all or most circumstances, and as many as 70 percent believe that Roe v. Wade – which guarantees a constitutional right to an abortion in the first trimester – should not be overturned.  

If Republicans want to win back moderate women and other voters who don't believe abortion should be criminalized – especially not in cases of rape and incest – then they will need to dispense with talk that many of their own describe as "stupid." But the more intriguing question is whether, to attract more voters, the party will rethink some of its policy positions. 

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