Maybe the Democrats were right in 1998 when they defended President Bill Clinton during the impeachment process by noting that he only lied about having an affair with a White House intern. It was only about sex after all. Besides, despite the widespread knowledge of Clinton’s womanizing, he still won two terms as President. It wasn’t about official actions. Or was it?
The problem with Clinton was that his moral relativism didn’t stop at the bedroom door. It permeated his life – public and private. Much to the glee of Republicans and the frustration of Democrats, Clinton’s moral relativism resulted in Washington spending much of the 1990s investigating the Clintons and the Clinton White House. Whitewater. FBI files. Travel office firings. Law firm billing records. Chinese campaign contributions. Pardons. Clinton’s ethical problems defined his presidency and likely caused Al Gore to lose the 2000 election.
Notwithstanding the disdain of moderates and liberals who pooh-pah the importance of personal morals and ethics, those concepts – debated by some of the greatest minds in history like Aristotle, Plato, and St. Augustine – matter because, without them, man reverts to the state of nature where anything goes and might makes right. For years, Republicans had cornered the market as the party of values because it understood this reality.
In the watershed election of 1994, Republicans offered voters the Contract with America. The Contract with America contained (among other items) pledges to be fiscally responsible and to promote personal responsibility and reinforce family values. The voters accepted the Contract with America by giving Republicans control of the House of Representatives for the first time in over four decades. Soon thereafter, Republicans captured the Senate and the Presidency. During that time, Republicans had an occasional Bob Packwood, but he was lost in the Clinton Ocean of ethical issues. In a 1998 Gallup Poll, Republicans had an eleven-point edge as the party most able to deal with moral issues.
On the road to Damascus, however, we lost our way.
In the twelve years after that historic election, Republicans broke the fiscal covenant they had made with the voters by, among other things, increasing the size of the federal government (passing Medicare Part D; expanding the federal role in education with the No Child Left Behind Act; and adding roughly 7,000 pages of new federal regulations), and significantly accelerating the use of earmarks (from 1,300 in 1994 to 14,000 in 2005). In a November 1994 Gallup Poll, Republicans held a whopping twenty-one point lead over Democrats on who could better handle the economy. Gallup’s latest poll has Democrats leading Republicans by twelve points – a thirty-three-point swing in just thirteen years.
Likewise, Republicans shredded all remnants of the value covenant and lost the banner it held as the party of values and ethics. While the Democrats have the on-going corruption case of William Jefferson, the sordid details of the Jack Abramhoff case – along with the corruption convictions of Republicans Bob Ney and Duke Cunningham – was tailor-made for twenty-four news channels struggling to fill air-time and left-leaning reporters always eager to highlight Republican hypocrisy on ethics. At the state level, Ohio Governor Bob Taft pled guilty to failing to pay for perquisites and got intertwined with his own Jack Abramhoff in the form of Tom Noe. The reporting of Mark Foley’s salacious emailing of pages just weeks before the election sealed the deal for voters in 2006.
Unfortunately, the ethics taint continues as this year included David Vitter’s prostitution problem, Larry Craig’s wide stance, and Ted Stevens’ remodeling job. Gallup’s newest poll shows Republicans hanging onto a meager four-point lead on value issues, but trailing Democrats by thirteen points on the issue of dealing with government corruption.
So, what does this have to do with Rudy Giuliani? Everything.
For many months, Republican primary voters have struggled with Rudy’s presidential run because while he is a strong leader and did some great things in New York City, he is also morally suspect. During those months, moderates and Machiavellian strategist have pled with the Religious Right to overlook Rudy’s social stances and incredibly messy personal life because he is the only Republican who can allegedly win.
As we have learned over the last few weeks, Rudy’s moral relativism didn’t stop at the bedroom either. From the indictment of Bernie Kerik – a key member of Rudy’s inner circle who Rudy promoted from obscurity to Homeland Security nominee – to the revelations that taxpayers footed the bill for Rudy’s mistress to have round-the-clock police protection years before he separated from his wife, including being driven to visit her parents in Pennsylvania, it is clear that Rudy did whatever Rudy wanted to do.
Look, marriages collapse. It is a fact of life. People make mistakes. That is also a fact of life. That being said, it simply is a bridge too far to ask voters to believe that Rudy had no knowledge of a key public official’s and best friend’s sudden ability to afford an expensive apartment and to ignore the use of taxpayer funds to protect his wife and his mistress at the same time and for months on end. That might work in France, but it won’t work in Iowa. Or Ohio. Or New Mexico. In the 2004 election, President George W. Bush won those states with less than one percent, three percent and one percent, respectively. Without those states, Republicans likely cannot win the White House.
The problem with Rudy isn’t that one of his best friends was corrupt or that he cheated on his wife. The problem with Rudy is that these private lapses involved public positions and funds. At a time when Republicans are neck deep in ethical scandals and trying to reclaim the fiscal high ground, the last thing we need is a candidate to head the ticket who perpetuates the Republican taint. With eleven months to go before the 2008 election, Republicans don’t have the time or resources to waste propping up a politically flawed candidate and trying to parse words to show that Rudy and Bill Clinton aren’t two sides of the same coin. As the latter famously said, “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” Rest assured the voters won’t be fooled again.