WASHINGTON - Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, to paraphrase Humphrey Bogart, but soon and for the rest of its life, the Republican Party will thank Rep. Todd Akin.
He may cost them the Senate seat they thought they could have gained in Missouri. But he may also allow them to gain something even more valuable: a chance to seem almost reasonable on abortion, just in time for the general election.
With one cockeyed answer last month to a question in a television interview in St. Louis, Akin made the rest of his party look moderate. Fellow Republicans got to renounce his remarks wholesale, especially the crazy part about how, if victims of legitimate rape get pregnant, "the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down." Of course, the party's very own platform opposes abortion in the case of rape, incest or life of the mother - exceptions that, polls show, a majority of Americans favor.
No matter. Better to denounce Akin than defend some document that no one reads anyway. Perhaps best of all, and most important to the party, Akin's comment allowed presidential nominee Mitt Romney to appear centrist on abortion and detracted attention from his running mate's history on the subject, which is practically identical to Akin's.
In Congress, Rep. Paul Ryan and Akin were two peas in a pod, with their sterling ratings from the National Right to Life Committee, their votes to cut off funding for Planned Parenthood, and a bill requiring women to sit for a lecture on fetal pain. They co-sponsored legislation that would distinguish between types of rape (there's forcible and non- forcible), the same distinction Akin made in his fateful interview, as well as "personhood" legislation, which is so extreme even the Right-to-Life Committee has not taken an official position on it.
Despite the alliance of Ryan and Akin, Romney didn't ask Ryan to quit the campaign, as he demanded of Akin. Instead, by separating himself loudly from Akin while continuing to embrace Ryan, Romney gets to be in his favorite position: having it both ways. Ryan can still motivate pro-lifers for whom abortion is often a prime issue. With Ryan, Romney can keep conservative women voting Republican as they did in the 2010 midterms.
With Akin giving Romney room to move left, and Ryan covering him from the right, the candidate was able to blow a dog whistle on CBS's "60 Minutes" this week. Here was Romney 3.0 - the same Romney who supported a no-exceptions plank in the 2004 and 2008 platforms - now emphasizing what he thinks should be allowed, not what shouldn't be, and adding an exception that went unnoticed. "I'm in favor of abortion being legal in the case of rape and incest, and the health and life of the mother."
A "health" exception is anathema to conservatives. It's the loophole so large an eight-months-pregnant teenager can squeeze through a clinic door.
Moderates watching could be lulled into thinking Romney is, well, moderate. Conservatives, meanwhile, might have just decided to keep their mouths shut. Romney is already in enough trouble without making abortion front and center.
Other Republican candidates got to do their own version of the Romney. Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts, in a close race against Elizabeth Warren, was among the first Republicans to call for Akin to drop out. Former governor Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin, in a close Senate race with Rep. Tammy Baldwin, said, "We all have a moral responsibility to come together in opposition to crimes against women and support an exception for abortion in the abhorrent situations where rape is involved." Thompson has apparently changed his mind since 2000, when he served on the party platform committee.
As for this year's platform committee, the chairman was Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia, famous for its proposal to require an intrusive ultrasound for women seeking a legal abortion within the first trimester. He tried to hide the clear intent of this year's platform, which is identical to Akin's. McDonnell argues that the platform doesn't force a woman to bear a rapist's child and that it is up to the states to make her.
McDonnell's fellow Republican in Virginia, former governor George Allen, is in a tight Senate contest with former Democratic governor Tim Kaine. Allen denounced Akin's comments "and the sentiments behind them," even though as a senator in 2004 Allen voted to confirm a federal judge who said that "concern for rape victims is a red herring because conceptions from rape occur with approximately the same frequency as snowfall in Miami."
All Republican Senate candidates got distance from Akin when Sen. John Cornyn, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, called Akin "wrong, offensive, and indefensible" and cut off his money.
None of these sticks and stones prompted Akin to withdraw by the 5 p.m. Sept. 25 deadline. Before he was battered by his party, Akin led incumbent Sen. Claire McCaskill. She now leads by six points in one recent poll, a lead that is likely to grow when she unleashes a fusillade of ads - the first of which aired just minutes after the deadline had passed.
Republicans will eventually have to find a way to retreat from their bombardment of Akin. For better or worse, he is now their candidate. That might be hard for some Republican candidates, but there is one prominent member of the party for whom it shouldn't be a problem: Mitt Romney has had a lot of practice changing his position.