It was not on the public schedule for the Republican National Committee's spring meeting at the stately Peabody Hotel in downtown Memphis. But inside a conference room, a group of conservative women held a boot camp to strengthen an unlikely set of skills: how to talk about abortion. They have conducted a half-dozen of these sessions around the country this year, from Richmond, Va., to Madison, Wis. Coaches point video cameras at the participants and ask them to talk about why they believe abortion is wrong. They review the video, and critiques are rendered. "Rape is a four-letter word," one of the consultants often advises. "Purge it from your lexicon."
Shortly after the 2012 elections, after a significant gender gap contributed to a series of Republican defeats, Republican strategists, consultants, and pollsters started hosting tutorials for GOP officials. The topic: how to speak to and about women.
As best as I can tell, the first formal lessons were offered in January 2013, but we've seen reports of similar rhetorical training sessions on several occasions since.
It appears the coaching needs constant reinforcing. Jeremy Peters reported yesterday:
This is, by the way, almost word for word the same advice GOP consultants started offering immediately after the party's 2012 failures.
Whether Republican strategists realize this or not, the advice is fundamentally flawed.
Former Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (R-Colo.), a fierce opponent of reproductive rights, advices, "Don't let them corner you." As Peters' report added, Musgrave advises candidates to pivot to the debate over terminating pregnancies after the 20th week. "Put them on their heels," Musgrave said. "Ask them: 'Exactly when in a pregnancy do you think abortion should be banned?' "
As Ed Kilgore noted, this has been part of the GOP playbook for 20 years. It hasn't worked.
But it's worth appreciating why it's failed and why the gender gap is getting worse for Republicans. For these consultants, the problem is rhetorical -- if GOP candidates and lawmakers would simply stop saying offensive things about rape and start using smarter language, the political problems would dissipate.
As we've discussed before, however, this ignores the more fundamental, substantive problem.
To be sure, there's no denying that incidents like Todd Akin's "legitimate rape" rhetoric take a toll on GOP support. But the fact remains that Republicans have chosen to present themselves as the party of requiring medically-unnecessary ultrasounds; fighting equal-pay laws; restricting contraception access, closing women's health clinics, combating reproductive rights, and targeting Planned Parenthood.
Party strategists are convinced that women voters may simply overlook the effects of the Republican policy agenda if it's packaged more effectively. I think they're likely to be disappointed by how much women care about substance.
The issue plaguing the party isn't spin, it's substance. There's a limit on how much new talking points can do.
As for the "don't let them corner you" advice, I'm trying to imagine how that would work in practice. Consider the scenario we talked about last year: a reporter asks a GOP lawmaker, "Congressman, under your proposal, women impregnated by a rapist would be required to carry their pregnancy to term, even if they don't want to." Republicans cannot just sit there, staring blankly into the camera.
"Stop talking about rape" is reasonable advice, but wouldn't it be even better if GOP policymakers stopped proposing legislation that says rape victims shouldn't have choices when it comes to reproductive rights?
Disclosure: My wife works for Planned Parenthood, but played no role in this piece.