Where is the old John McCain?
He's right here: McCain's never been much of a maverick, and his extreme right-wing leanings extend farther back than even his critics think.
We all know that John McCain voted with George W. Bush almost 90 percent of the time. Most of us don't know, however, that one of his points of opposition with the president was when McCain rejected federal funds for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. While Bush reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act, McCain voted against funding for VAWA as recently as 2007. It was McCain's second vote against VAWA, as he opposed the first version of this landmark legislation in 1994.
Byzantine laws flourished on the state level before VAWA. The act provided federal funds to programs focused on preventing domestic violence and sexual assault through local, state and federal agencies, along with compliance rules for accepting federal funds. Marital rape and date rape, for example, carried lesser penalties for assailants than stranger rape, a gross implication that certain kinds of assault were more acceptable. Moreover, because most women are assaulted by acquaintances, the most common form of rape was the least policed and punished. As recent examples from election coverage suggest, the rules guiding VAWA funding are still necessary to protect rape victims from being treated as second-class citizens under the law. Sarah Palin broke these rules as mayor of Wasilla when she charged sexual assault victims for rape kits.
McCain and Palin's objection to protecting women from violence is exceptional. VAWA is distinctive in enjoying broad bipartisan support, easily passing the House and Senate to be signed into law by President Clinton, and reauthorized by a Republican congress and a Republican President in subsequent years. Though measuring the precise impact of VAWA is difficult, between 1994 and 2000, incidences of domestic violence dropped 25 percent. Joe Biden, the author of VAWA, recalls rape victims "walking up to him on the street" to express gratitude for the Act.
Extreme right-wingers, however, loathe VAWA, portraying federal funds to rape and domestic violence programs as "feminist pork." Both Fox News and the Washington Times claimed that VAWA is unnecessary and discriminates against men, a charge that "men's rights" groups happily endorse. Critics of VAWA belittle the idea that women have been subject to specific forms of interpersonal violence, like rape and battering, because they are women.
Right-wing websites like Men's News Daily and Townhall greeted Joe Biden's selection as Obama's running mates with a chorus of misogynistic jeers. Referring to the democratic ticket as "GynObama" and "VAWA Joe," one Men's News Daily article asks men to "do a quick testicular self-exam. That space you feel between your legs means that Barack Obama and Joe Biden -- both on record as ballbusting misandrists -- will easily convince you to send them to the White House." The Democrat's emasculating flaw? According to one Townhall writer, "Tragically -- but true to the radical feminist agenda -- the Obama/Biden Democratic ticket portends an escalating war on boys, men, fathers, and families." The right-wing objection, in a nutshell, is that specific treatment for women under the law is a violation of equal protection, and therefore unfair to men.
Such anger puzzles advocates for victims of violence. "Of course we want to ensure that services are available to all victims of violence," Cheryl O'Donnell of the National Network to End Domestic Violence told Mother Jones in 2005, noting that VAWA funded providers never denied services to men. "At the same time," she added, "the reason it's called the Violence Against Women Act is that it's recognizing that women are overwhelmingly the victims of violence."
Part of the constituency that McCain/Palin do purport to protect in their slim crime bill is child victims of sexual abuse. Yet they focus on forms of sexual assault perpetrated by strangers in two key provisions of their plan. This neglects problems that laws like VAWA attack: 93 percent of victims know their abuser, and 34 percent live with their abuser. Some child sexual abuse cases involve siblings in the home, an added complication that neither of McCain's suggestions solves. Victims of sexual abuse and their parents need the help that programs funded by VAWA can provide.
Instead of joining the chorus of voices supporting VAWA, the Republican party is putting forward two candidates profoundly to the right of most Americans and the vast majority of legislators. Sexual assault prevention and the treatment of victims is not a divisive partisan issue. Yet McCain rejects VAWA, and Palin broke VAWA's rules when she refused to provide rape exams. Feminist for Life, the anti-choice group to which Palin belongs, charges that emergency contraceptives are a form of abortion, and some critics in turn have charged that Palin declined to pay for rape kits because of this idea. Palin's already stated that she's not above using the state to impose her feelings about abortion on rape survivors.
The McCain/Palin ticket's position on violence against women is archaic, and VAWA is up for reauthorization again in 2010. Don't give these two mavericks a chance to return us to a time when women were blamed and charged for being raped and beaten.