How the fighting talk fizzled from Mitt Romney's Republican Party

The GOP has allowed the Democrats to seize their ideological heartland - patriotism and defence.

Mitt Romney is in Ohio again, his fifteenth trip to this state this year. He pledged yesterday at a campaign rally in Mansfield, about three hours east of Hicksville, to protect the military from coming budgetary cuts to defence, known as the “sequestration”. He was undermined by the fact that a majority of congressional republicans – his running-mate Paul Ryan included – voted in favour of it.

This is the latest in a series of similar embarrassments for the Romney campaign. The Grand Old Party, as the Republicans are known, has been comprehensively outflanked and routed on the subject of the military, and are ceding vast swathes of territory on what just eight years ago was their home ground: patriotism and defence.

The evidence is clearest in the candidates' speeches to their national conventions. In his acceptance speech in 2004, George W Bush used the words “troops,” “Iraq,” “Afghanistan,” “battle,” “soldier,” “terror” and “safe,” and their derivatives (safety, terrorist, terrorism and so on) a total of 58 times – fifty-eight – to John Kerry's 11.

This pattern reversed in the 2008 election. John McCain used the above words just nine times in his acceptance speech, while Obama used them 29 times – though the effect of this was somewhat lightened by McCain's own war record, on which his campaign dwelt incessantly.

This reversal is even more dramatic in the conventions just past. While Obama did tone down the fighting talk, using those words above just 11 times, Mitt Romney did not use any of them. Not even once.

Remember that this is the presidential nominee from the party of George W Bush, the party that forged the neo-conservatism of Karl Rove and Dick Cheney; remember also that this is the party that coined the phrase “war on terror”.

Not once did this man who wants to be elected Commander-in-Chief of the world's most powerful military mention the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; not once did he mention terrorism, or war. Veterans and soldiers merited not one single solitary mention. Ryan, too, failed to hint at even the existence of any of these things in his speech.

John McCain was a war veteran; in fact he had a long and distinguished military career. Mitt Romney is not, and nor is this a deficit his running-mate fills; indeed, as mentioned before, Ryan voted in favour of sequestration of the military budget.

The Democrats are planting banners and occupying what used to be the Republicans' ideological heartland. Perhaps their party leadership simply got complacent, unable to conceive that the Democrats could steal a march on them in this way. Perhaps the rise in influence of the Tea Party on the far right, with their small-government and big-God ideals, has something to do with it. More likely is that, given the Romney-Ryan ticket's paucity of foreign policy heft, their campaign tacticians are scared of bringing up the subject and allowing the President to play his trump card: the killing of Osama Bin Laden in May 2011.

The Obama campaign has just brought out a new poster which says :“Sarah Palin said she could see Russia from Alaska; Mitt Romney talks like he's only seen Russia by watching Rocky IV”. They are also firing broadsides into Romney's pledges to protect military spending while reducing the deficit; this was the bullseye of Bill Clinton's barnstorming “arithmetic” line in his speech last week.

Yesterday in his Ohio rally, Romney ran to one of the few remaining Republican safe zones left – religion – pledging to keep God in the public sphere and in his party's platform - a thinly-veiled reference to the Democrats' omission of the word from theirs. But, in front of a military crowd, the blow failed to land.

Today is 9/11, the anniversary of the day that changed America – and American foreign policy – forever. Today will be a day of solemnity and remembrance for both campaigns, and for the nation. Romney is spending the day in Reno, Nevada, addressing the National Guard Association conference alongside a brace of generals. But it seems like too little, too late. Those horrific attacks, eleven years ago today, lit a fire deep in the belly of this country. It seems to have fizzled and died in the belly of the Republican Party.

Mitt Romney didn't use words like "soldier", "terror" or "safe" once in his convention speech. Photograph: Getty Images

Nicky Woolf is reporting for the New Statesman from the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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Is "successful" sperm really the measure of a man's masculinity?

An advertising campaign challenging men to "prove your worth" is being proposed to increase dwindling numbers of sperm donors – will the myth that only "real" men have potent sperm ever die?

Are you a superman? By which I mean, do you have the kind of sperm that would be accepted by the UK Sperm Bank, currently stuck with only nine donors on the books? Laura Witjens, chief executive, is currently launching a drive to recruit more donors. Her secret weapon? An appeal to male vanity.

Speaking to the Guardian, Witjens claims that if she advertised saying, “Men, prove your worth, show me how good you are”, it would be a route to gaining “hundreds of donors”. The implication is that beta males need not apply; this is for “real” men only. And what better way to demonstrate one’s manly credentials than through the spreading of one’s super-strength, 100 per cent proof, ultra-potent seed?

The proposed campaign approach serves to remind us of two things: first, the male ego is ridiculous, and second, reproductive ability is still treated as an indicator of whether or not one is a “successful” representative of one’s sex. However much we claim that biology is no longer destiny, certain expectations linger. “Real men” have high-quality sperm and want to see it distributed as widely as possible. “Real women,” on the other hand, only end up unable to reproduce if they have “left it too late” (that is, spent too much time in what is still seen as the world of men).

That fertility is primarily linked to luck rather than sexist morality tales is something we’d rather not admit. After all, far too many cultural edifices have been built around the idea that the opposite is true.

For something that resembles runny PVA glue, sperm has done well for itself. Throughout history, men have been obsessed with their precious seed and what it means for their status as the dominant sex. Since it is women who get pregnant – women who perform the actual task of gestating and birthing new human beings – there has always been a need to inflate the importance of semen, lest men should be sidelined completely. Whereas for women reproduction is a continuous process, for men it is more disjointed and conceptual. Hence it is important to have something to rely on. In sperm we trust.  

Otherwise can a man ever be sure – really, really sure – that a baby is his? For biological mothers, maternity is never in question. For biological fathers, paternity needs to be established. There are various ways of achieving this: heterosexual marriage, compulsory monogamy, the policing of women’s sexual choices, the withholding of material resources from women in return for sexual exclusivity, the threat of an appearance on Jeremy Kyle.

And then there are the various myths regarding how magical and special your own sperm is. It had to be you, didn’t it? He shoots, he scores. How else would the phrase “Who’s the Daddy?” have come into its current usage? The “skill” of impregnation is linked to manliness. If you’re a real man, the implication is, then you’ve nothing to fear.

The “superman” theme proposed by Witjens harks back to the various ways in which men have sought to position themselves and their sperm right at the centre of human reproduction, believing, for instance, that it already contained human beings in miniature, or that women merely provided the passive matter that would bring their active principle to life.

The biology I learned at school still played on the narrative of the hardy, valiant sperm battling against all odds to reach the passive, if somewhat capricious, egg. Sex education met gender indoctrination; it even seemed to be implied that the egg, in closing off entry to all other sperm once the “victor” had penetrated her boundaries, was being a bit of a tease (she’d already set off down the fallopian tube, what did she expect?). Pregnancy itself, we were led to believe, could never match the creativity, risk and drama of that one initial shag.

To respond to such myth-making with “but it’s only sperm and actually it could be anyone’s” seems positively mean. Women are supposed to worship it. Our effluvia – vaginal discharge, menstrual blood, breast milk – might be seen as disgusting, but when it comes to a man’s cum, it’s considered rude not to want to swallow it. People who respond with outrage when a woman suckles her baby in a crowded café think nothing of the idea that a real woman should want to gulp down semen with gusto. Patriarchal semiotics tell us that what comes out of men is life-giving and hygienic; women, on the other hand – popping out babies and sustenance – merely leak. It takes a brave woman to say, “hang on, is semen really all that?”

In the UK at least, it would seem that it isn’t. According to Witjens, getting one’s sperm approved for the UK Sperm Bank is exceptionally difficult because of how strong the product needs to be to survive the freezing and thawing process: “If 100 guys enquire, ten will come through for screenings and maybe one becomes a donor. It takes hundreds of guys.” Meaning most men don’t actually measure up to “superman” standards (without even considering what this approach says to men with a low sperm count, of whom it is suggested that the manhood test has been well and truly failed).

Her advertising strategy may be one that works. But it would be nice if, in a society that increasingly favours a politics of acquisition over one of care, we could be a little less focused on the potency of the mighty seed, looking instead at this particular form of donation as part of a broader process of creating and caring for others. Perhaps appeals to male vanity just work better than appeals to altruism. Even so, it’s a pity that it has to be so.

The aftermath of sperm donation can be complicated. Once one gets beyond the cash and the ego trips, the process can lead to real children with a real need to know the identity of the donor. Whereas in the past social convention allowed men to define ownership of children on their terms, nowadays globalisation and reproductive technology have led to a splintering of roles. Is it care or biology that makes a parent? What is it that shapes an identity and makes a person?

For most of us, the humane position is that nurture – the act of being there – must trump any biological contribution. To think otherwise is unfair on those who devote years of their lives to the raising of children. But for many donor-conceived adults, the donor is still needed to complete the picture of who one really is. And he will not be a superman. He will be a person who gave something small that nevertheless contributed to the creation of something miraculous: a life. And shouldn’t that be enough?

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of two who works in publishing.