Sex Scandals and Family Values

Carol Platt Liebau
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Posted: Sep 04, 2007 11:58 AM
Sex Scandals and Family Values

It’s never good when Republicans become recognized as much for their sex scandals as for their family values. That’s why Republicans made it very clear last week that Senator Larry Craig had no choice but to resign his Senate seat, why Senator David Vitter offered up a humiliating public mea culpa, and Representative Mark Foley left Congress. No doubt it was too much to expect that the left would refrain from denouncing any of the three – but what’s been most revealing, perhaps, is what Foley, Vitter and Craig have been condemned for, and why.

There’s plenty to criticize about Foley’s suggestive emails to former Congressional pages, Vitter’s contacts with the “DC Madam,” and Larry Craig’s homosexual overtures in a Minneapolis airport bathroom. But in drawing partisan blood, Democrats have tended to focus less on the underlying activity than on the alleged “hypocrisy” of those engaging in it. Foley and Vitter were excoriated by liberals for paying lip service to the concept of “family values” while engaging in unsavory behavior; Craig, it has been repeatedly noted, is a conservative who supports a ban on gay marriage.

Such criticism plays into the worst aspects of Democratic identity politics. It assumes that every homosexual must, in his heart, support gay marriage and hate crimes legislation, and that any husband who is unfaithful to his wife cannot sincerely believe in the sanctity of wedding vows. It’s the newest incarnation of the feminist cri de coeur that the “personal is political” – on steroids. In the left-wing formulation, a politician is a “hypocrite” unless his personal behavior dictates all of his public policies.

For Democrats, the charge of “hypocrisy” has become a catch-all indictment, especially when it comes to sex. It allows them the luxury of condemnation without the responsibility of reaching a judgment about the morality of the underlying behavior. That is an enormous convenience for the party of Gerry Studds (who continued to serve in Congress after confessing to an affair with a 17 year old male Congressional page), Bill Clinton and Ted Kennedy.

It’s perhaps inevitable that the label of “hypocrite” would be more frequently affixed to Republicans than Democrats when it comes to sex scandals. That’s because the Republican Party tends to honor sexual morality, even in the breach. If, as Francois Duc de la Rochefoucauld famously quipped, “hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue,” its existence constitutes at least an implicit acknowledgment that virtue matters. Many left-leaning politicians and pundits brag about how difficult it is to accuse Democrats of being hypocrites. In truth, that fact is hardly a badge of honor. It means only that it’s impossible to criticize politicians for violating certain standards of behavior when they don’t have any.

In the ultimate irony, the way Democrats have wielded the hypocrisy cudgel has branded them as, well, hypocrites. It’s worth noting that they designate as hypocrites only those with whom they disagree on policy matters. Bill Clinton’s piggish behavior toward women, including Monica Lewinksy and Kathleen Willey (and, worst of all, Juanita Broadrick), was noticeably at odds with his purportedly feminist policy positions – but because he was pro-choice and mouthed all the right platitudes, none of that mattered. Similarly, the left-wing policies of rich Democrats like John Kerry and John Edwards apparently insulate them from charges that, because of their wealth, they represent “the powerful” who supposedly oppress “the people” in the “other America.”

Democrats are, of course, free to disagree with their Republican counterparts over policy positions of all kinds – and they are certainly entitled to their own opinions about the wrongfulness of the behavior exhibited by Larry Craig, David Vitter and Mark Foley. But wouldn’t it be more honest, and more useful, for them to step up and condemn on their merits the behavior or policies that they oppose, rather than cravenly falling back on the value-free hypocrisy “gotcha” game?