When the news broke that Sen. David Vitter (R-LA), Sen. John Ensign (R-NV) and then Gov. Mark Sanford (R-SC) had confessed to having extramarital affairs (and in the case of Mr. Vitter, engaged the services of a prostitute), the knee-jerk reaction among the conservatives was to respond with “Spitzer-Edwards-Clinton did it too!” even if no one had brought up the former Governor of New York, the former Senator from North Carolina and presidential candidate, or the former president. It was a preemptive attempt to inoculate them from accusations of hypocrisy by distraction. It’s a juvenile response and it really doesn’t work because a) it’s irrelevant, and b) why would conservatives, who make a living bashing liberals or anyone who doesn’t toe their line of granular morality, want to compare themselves to people they view as moral degenerates?
There are a couple of reasons I can think of. For one thing, the Republicans have branded themselves as the party of morality and personal responsibility and held up the Democrats as advocates of “divorce, illegitimacy, adultery, homosexuality, bestiality and pornography.” And yet the Republicans have supplied us with ample examples of their own “moral degeneracy,” as Joe Conason delineates in Salon.com.
The supposed depravity of the Democratic Party has long been a favorite theme of conservatives, dating back to the rise of Newt Gingrich, who distributed an official campaign lexicon to Republican congressional candidates that featured such defining insults as “decadent,” “permissive,” “sick,” “selfish” and, of course, “liberal.” Back then the Georgia Republican was on his second marriage and carrying on a clandestine affair with the young Capitol Hill clerk who would eventually become his third wife (after he converted to Catholicism and had his union with wife No. 2 annulled). In 2007, he admitted on James Dobson’s radio show that he was cheating on wife No. 2 with future wife No. 3 while he was publicly chastising President Clinton for consorting with Monica Lewinsky. Gingrich has remained a consistent favorite among his pious comrades.
Today, in fact, Gingrich is fully rehabilitated as a party spokesman, still nurturing presidential ambitions. So why should any other Republican fear the wrath of the righteous? The disappointment in Sanford and Ensign among the devout must be particularly keen, since they have so rigorously aligned themselves with the most fervent elements of the religious right.
For more than a decade, Ensign lent his name to Promise Keepers, the all-male Christian prayer movement run by a former Colorado football coach, whose mass rallies highlighted men’s integrity, purity and uncompromising domination of family life. Both he and Sanford have worked closely with the Family, a secretive Christian fellowship on Capitol Hill that maintains a brick townhouse where Ensign and other members of Congress have resided. Over the years both men have won the highest marks from the Family Research Council, the Christian Coalition and the American Family Association — and until the other day, Sanford was featured as an invited speaker at the Family Research Council’s upcoming Values Voters Summit 2009. (As Pam Spaulding and Think Progress noted, however, the FRC removed his photo from the summit Web site immediately following his confessional press conference.)
Certainly there is considerable pressure for Sanford to resign in South Carolina, and perhaps he will surrender. But he might well ask whether that is fair when Ensign is hanging on and Vitter appears to be in the clear. For a while, Family Research Council president Tony Perkins had threatened to challenge Vitter in the Republican primary next year, but last March he announced that he won’t run after all — and instead endorsed Vitter for reelection. Amazingly, Perkins then hosted a radio broadcast with Vitter as his guest, where they tut-tutted over the alleged ethical problems of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. Nobody had the poor taste to mention the infamous black books in which Vitter’s friendly madams in Washington and New Orleans had inscribed his name and phone number.
That brings up another element in the equation. The conservatives are remarkably forgiving of their own transgressors. Mr. Vitter, Mr. Ensign, and Mr. Sanford still have their jobs, and the idea of quitting — at least voluntarily — doesn’t get much traction with them or with their party. (The one exception was Rep. Mark Foley (R-FL), who, when caught e-mailing sexually explicit messages to teenage boys, was out of a job and out of town before sundown. The difference, of course, was that he is gay. Gov. Mark Sanford’s e-mails to his mistress are the stuff of bad romance novels, but he still has a job. There are even double standards in incriminating evidence.) Democrats are not so lenient. Mr. Spitzer resigned his office (as did Gov. Jim McGreevy (D-NJ) when he came out of the closet and admitted to an affair with his driver) and Mr. Edwards will never hold political office again.
Why is that? You could probably chalk the Republicans’ ability to forgive and forget up to their Christian charity, but it’s hard to escape the conclusion that they’re just big old hypocrites who hold everyone else up to a higher standard than they are willing to hold themselves up to. (Either that or if they ran out everyone in the party who was divorced or had a fling, there would be even fewer of them than there are now.) And you can also assume that they will find someone else to blame for their own failings; back when Newt Gingrich was going through his divorce, his allies blamed it on Bill Clinton’s culture of permissiveness, and now Rush Limbaugh is blaming Mr. Sanford’s fling on Barack Obama and the struggle he had with the South Carolina state legislature accepting federal stimulus funds (bringing a whole other meaning to the term “stimulus package,” I guess). So much for the “personal responsibility” party.
Moral failings and human frailties are oblivious to party allegiance. We all have them. So trying to exploit someone else’s while holding yourself up as the paragon of virtue is destined for epic failure. That’s harder to forgive and forget.