No recent development has underlined the decline of political party clout more than beleaguered Senate Republican nominee Todd Akin's refusal to accede to GOP leadership demands that he withdraw from his race against Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri.
In spite of his asinine declaration that the female reproductive mechanism can somehow neutralize the pregnancy-creating sperm of a "legitimate" rapist, Mr. Akin has vowed to press on. He is bolstered by equally fervent anti-abortion organizations determined to show the Show Me State they are not to be denied.
His and their defiance of the abuse heaped on Mr. Akin, for bringing ridicule to a debate they consider almost sacred, has left Republican Party leaders looking politically impotent. The impression runs from local county chairmen to the party's prospective presidential and vice presidential nominees.
Both Mitt Romney and his new sidekick, Paul Ryan, have condemned Mr. Akin's remarks, which Mr. Akin himself dismissed as merely misspoken. But each only weakly suggested that the party would be better served if he took a powder from the race, upon which control of the U.S. Senate might well rest in November.
Even conservative America's airwaves oracle, Rush Limbaugh, while joining the chorus of condemnation, stopped short of exercising his powers as the GOP high priest. "If I had demanded Akin drop out, he'd be gone," Mr. Limbaugh boasted.
At a minimum, the episode only underscored Mr. Romney's leadership deficiency in his own party, and the inability of the Republican establishment to impose any discipline on an insignificant underling for the good of the party. It's abundantly clear now that the Grand Old Party has become a divided camp, with its most insurgent members, as in the tea party movement, ready and willing to break ranks for their own causes.
There was a time in American politics when both major parties had sufficient internal unity and discipline to call on their followers, whether they went off the reservation or just "misspoke," to take the bullet for the wounded party. Sometimes the leadership came from high elected officials, sometimes from national, state or big-city political bosses threatening the wrath of the party if the errant one did not comply.
The denial of party support, in terms of financial help and organizational assistance in the campaigns of party candidates, was regarded as essential to survival and victory. Most political assistance was parceled out through the local, state or national party apparatus. But the development, and lately the blossoming, of nonparty political operations and fat-cat contributors have made the parties toothless tigers in comparison to their well-disciplined forebears.
Down through the years, strong party leaders and bosses -- Democrats from Jim Farley and Tom Pendergast to Frank Hague and Richard J. Daley, and Republicans from Thurlow Weed and Roscoe Conkling to Mark Hanna and Thomas Platt -- ruled with iron fists and made their authority stick.
Also, party national chairmen -- Democrats from John Bailey to Larry O'Brien and Bob Strauss, and Republicans from Herb Brownell to Leonard Hall and Ray Bliss -- were well-known entities whose call for personal self-sacrifice from a wayward foot soldier was not easily ignored. The barely heard "demand" for Mr. Akin's head from the obscure current GOP national chairman, Reince Priebus of Wisconsin, was like the sound of a discarded Christmas tree falling in a trash dump.
In earlier days, political self-sacrifice for the cause was expected and often delivered. In 1975, a true Republican giant, Nelson Rockefeller, bowed to pressure and withdrew from the 1976 Republican ticket for re-election as vice president under President Gerald Ford. He acted under pressure from Ford's conservative campaign manager, Bo Callaway, who argued the liberal Rocky's presence would cost Ford the election. It happened anyway, in his narrow loss to Jimmy Carter.
It is, to be sure, the misspeaking Todd Akin's right to remain in the Missouri Senate race against Claire McCaskill. For her part, she is hopefully rooting for him to do so, in his newly self-inflicted vulnerability. But for now, to outsiders, he resembles the skunk at, if you will pardon the expression, the tea party.
Jules Witcover is a former longtime writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is email@example.com.