Republicans: Boehner's to Blame for GOP's Foot-in-Mouth Disease

Chris Frates

Fetal masturbation. Rape doesn’t usually result in pregnancy. Grade-schoolers should be taught traditional gender roles.

A handful of House Republican lawmakers seem unable to stop making headlines on abortion and gay marriage. And Republicans on and off the Hill know who’s to blame:

House Speaker John Boehner.

GOP lawmakers, strategists, and insiders say Boehner and House leadership are enabling foot-in-mouth disease by allowing divisive social issues to reemerge at a time when Republicans were finally winning the daily messaging war against a controversy-plagued White House.

Republicans say they want leadership to start calling out the fringers, distancing the party from the lawmakers’ remarks. And they want leaders to stop bowing to interest-group pressure to put risky social issues on the House floor.

“Somebody, somewhere has got to strengthen their spine, and they have to man up and say to the groups, ‘These are not the kinds of conversations that are going to win elections and keep us in the majority,’ ” said Lisa Camooso Miller, a former House GOP leadership aide.

The current controversy began during debate on a bill to ban abortion after 20 weeks. The plan’s Republican sponsor, Rep. Trent Franks of Arizona, said, “You know, the incidences of rape resulting in pregnancy are very low.” Within hours, the Internet exploded with comparisons to former Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin’s infamous “legitimate rape” comments.

But it didn’t stop there.

A few days later, Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, trying to argue that if a 15-week fetus can feel pleasure it can also feel pain, stumbled into what has become known as the fetal-masturbation argument. “If they’re a male baby, they may have their hand between their legs. If they feel pleasure, why is it so hard to think that they could feel pain?” the former OB/GYN asked.

The next day, GOP Rep. Phil Gingrey of Georgia took to the floor to support the Defense of Marriage Act, which denies federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples, by arguing that schools should teach traditional gender roles to kids in grade school.

The resulting trifecta was met in some Republican circles with the collective thwap of palms smacking foreheads.

“When there is an occasional Akin eruption, that very much undermines our messages on the issues that the American people care about,” said Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa. “When these types of very incendiary comments are made, it brands other Republicans, who do not share those views, with those who make inflamatory, and I would argue uninformed, comments.”

Dent and others said leadership shouldn’t have put the abortion bill on the floor in the first place. They should be focused on the issues people care about, namely jobs and public distrust of government. Instead, he said, “we just had a debate on rape and abortion. Good grief.”

Or, as Camooso Miller put it, “After Trent Franks said what he said ... who in leadership in his right mind thought that it was a good idea to put that out? Anybody with half a brain would know that only more bad quotes would come from it.”

A GOP strategist went even further, calling it “leadership-sponsored ignorance.”

But a House GOP leadership aide defended the decision to put the bill on the floor, citing the Kermit Gosnell trial that saw the Philadelphia abortion doctor sentenced to life in prison for killing a baby born alive.

“It doesn’t make sense to pull a bill that has overwhelming support in the wake of something as horrible as the Gosnell trial because somebody said something that sounded inartful,” the aide said. “I’m sure that many of the same people sitting in booths in downtown restaurants saying we should have pulled the bill would be saying we lacked backbone” if we had pulled it.

Still, those “inartful” comments are particularly worrisome among Republican women.

“For every step forward Republicans have taken to promote positive messages on jobs, the economy, the recent scandals or the negative impacts of 'Obamacare,' comments from a small handful of members—ranging from the unbelievable to the absurd—have drowned them out,” said a female GOP strategist. “These comments are scaring and alienating women, and it’s sad because conservative policies help women far more than liberal policies do.”

Republican women lawmakers are “growing increasingly frustrated,” according to one GOP lawmaker. The leadership needs to weigh in. “It’s not changing people’s minds, it’s just saying, ‘Hey, don’t say stupid things,’ ” the lawmaker said.

But that’s exactly the problem: Leadership hasn’t told anybody to knock it off, according to another GOP lawmaker.

“Nobody wants to stick their neck out too far,” the legislator said. “The problem is, nobody confronts members.”

Of course, leaders can’t tell members what they can and can’t say. But, insiders argue, they can enforce message discipline through public shaming and reduce the opportunities for members to embarrass the party.

“Fetal masturbation? This is something that someone woke up and thought, ‘I’m going to bring this up.’ It’s just exasperating,” a GOP consultant said. “Instead of doing the things that are going to help us attract more voters and expand the reach of party from a messaging perspective, we’re in a position of continuing to alienate our own voters. It’s like extreme tyranny of the minority.”

But leadership maintains there’s not much they can do. “Each member of Congress is elected by their constituents and has First Amendment rights. I’m sure that former Speaker Pelosi wishes that Rep. Weiner, for example, had not said or tweeted some of the things he said and tweeted. That’s just part of life in a democracy,” the leadership aide said.

Then again, Weiner was forced to resign after sending a young woman a crotch selfie. Nobody’s arguing that the GOP lawmakers resign, but should Republicans who wander off the party’s talking points face some kind of discipline?

Dent wryly left the question unanswered saying, “Retribution can backfire very easily. But when one wants to respond to these types of situations, I would argue that retribution is a dish best served cold.”