Most Republicans do care what happens to people, but that is not necessarily what voters remember. Last week’s election highlighted weaknesses in that area of the party’s image. The popular perception that Republicans don’t care about people is broader than political strategists had recognized. It is a perception created and reinforced by a non-stop series of publicly unacceptable Republican expressions during the campaign season. Consider these memorable incidents:
- Asked why he would put the interests of corporations ahead of those of people, presidential candidate Mitt Romney famously told us that “corporations are people.” Separately, Romney could not even remember who he had beaten up in high school.
- Romney endorsed and actively supported a Senate candidate, Richard Mourdock, who described rapists as agents of God’s will. It is important to note that when Mourdock said this, it was not an ill-considered, off-the-cuff answer to a question, but a practiced talking point presented in an official debate and substantially reaffirmed the next day.
- Another Republican Senate candidate, Todd Akin, implied that most claims of rape, including any in which a woman got pregnant, were false. More than a few party leaders jumped to his defense in the following days after national party committees cut off his funding. In a similar vein, Rep. Joe Walsh, while running for re-election in Illinois, said there was no connection between health issues and pregnancy. Akin and Walsh both made up science facts to support their positions.
- The two biggest applause lines during the Republican primary-season debates were advocating death as the preferred solution to a problem. In one, an audience member called out “Let him die!” as a suggested public response when a hypothetical person who is not wealthy becomes critically ill. In the other, the audience cheered the hundreds of executions conducted under the administration of Gov. Rick Perry, then a candidate for president.
- Sen. Scott Brown, campaigning for re-election, spent a week falsely complaining that a group of very real asbestos victims were phony and that an opposing candidate had falsified her ancestry, without having any evidence to support either claim.
- Republicans sent out post cards falsely accusing Democrats of raiding Medicare spending at the same time that the Republicans’ own budget calls for the rapid elimination of Medicare.
- Donald Trump, a week before the election, was beating the drums trying to get a presidential candidate to release his college transcripts.
- Delegates to the Republican National Convention had to be removed from the convention floor after they participated in acts of violence and harassment against workers at the convention.
These expressions at least verge on sociopathic in their lack of regard for what happens to people, lack of concern for truth, and cluelessness about what it means to have a reputation. Of course, you can recall much more offensive examples than this in comments of Republican-leaning pundits, who have at times this year called for everything from assassinations to armed insurrection.
For the Republican strategists who might dismiss this list as isolated incidents that don’t make a big impression on the voting public, the election results suggest otherwise. On election night, people were talking about the way the “rape guys,” as the Republican rape apologists came to be identified in popular culture, lost their respective elections, but so did all the candidates I mentioned above.
This lack of regard is not a new trend that just popped up in Republican talking points last year. Four years ago, we remember hearing Republican candidates offer scathing indictments of the point of view of people who had a college education. These comments came from the presidential and vice-presidential candidates, among others, and were often worded in a way that could not have offered by someone who had stopped to consider that college graduates were real people who had feelings.
It is easy to find Republican leaders who don’t understand why the aggressive and often heartless comments that voters remember from this campaign season would present a problem for the reputation of the Republican party. A consensus of the party’s leaders recognize the problem, though, and have had enough. You could see signs of this in the subdued tone of last week’s conference call among the Republican caucus of the House of Representatives. Yet the message is not sinking in easily. Republican strategist Karen Hughes might have written in Politico, “And if another Republican man says anything about rape other than it is a horrific, violent crime, I want to personally cut out his tongue,” but the rest of her post-election analysis shows that aside from this one issue, she too fails to appreciate how far off the mark Republicans’ talking points were this time around.