Forcing Larry Craig's resignation while embracing David Vitter

Cost-free moralism is the only type the right-wing "traditional marriage" movement believes in.

Published August 30, 2007 11:50AM (EDT)

(updated below - Update II)

When Hugh Hewitt admitted that he wants Larry Craig to resign but does not want the adulterous, serial-prostitute-hiring David Vitter to do so, he was subjected to ridicule and scorn from many different corners -- on the ground that this inconsistency is obviously attributable both to anti-gay animus and rank political self-interest (Vitter's replacement would be chosen by a Democratic Governor, whereas Craig's would be chosen by a right-wing GOP Governor). Even some right-wing blogs noted the absurdity of that position: "Hugh Hewitt wants Craig to resign immediately but David Vitter to stay on. Huh?"

Yet that contradictory and nakedly unprincipled posture has now become the official position of the GOP leadership, led by its pious "moral values" wing. A whole slew of very upstanding Family Values Senators are parading around making a flamboyant showing of pressuring Larry Craig to resign (knowing that it will entail no political cost), all while remaining completely silent about David Vitter's at least equally "undignified" and confessed adultery and lawbreaking (acts which, just like Craig, he concealed from his family and colleagues in the Senate until he had no choice).

There has arisen a relatively recent orthodoxy among political journalists that, whether we agree or disagree with them, we're all supposed to show great respect to the "values voters" political faction, because it is grounded in deeply held moral convictions that merit real respect. Here is the adulation heaped on Tony Perkins of the odious Family Research Council by Chris Matthews on Tuesday night:

Tony Perkins, you're a great man. We have had you on so many times. . . . .

Tony Perkins, let me ask you to respond to that. Do you think that they're -- that the conservative people like yourself, who are not politicians, but are men of the church, who believe in values, rather than election results, will break with the pols on this one?

(Matthews then added, reciting the words from the Values Voters' lexicon: "I think that the gay lifestyle has, obviously, many features to it that may be unique to it").

Whatever else one wants to say about the "family values" wing of the right-wing movement, the absolute last thing that it is is a principled, apolitical movement. And -- as the starkly different treatment for Craig and Vitter conclusively demonstrates -- these vaunted "moral principles," for which we are all supposed to show such profound respect, are invoked only when there is no political cost to invoking them, and worse, typically only when there is political benefit in doing so.

Social conservative Ross Douthat, in a Bloggingheads TV session from yesterday, explained this important (though almost always overlooked) dynamic perfectly in the context of discussing Larry Craig:

The reason that gay rights became a political issue in a way that various other frankly more important issues having to do with marriage and family life did not -- particularly issues about divorce and heterosexual divorce rates and single parenthood -- is that, clearly, it is easier to demonize gay people. And it is much more of an electoral winner.

Obviously, I think the broader conservative concern about family values in American life is correct. I think the way it has manifested itself in our political life is that nobody wants to be the guy out there telling people -- hey, you know, your heterosexual marriage or your out-of-wedlock children are the problem. It's much easier to say -- here is this particular manifestation that you can easily set aside and say I'm not gay.

The only kind of "morality" that this movement knows or embraces is politically exploitative, cost-free morality. That is why the national Republican Party rails endlessly against homosexuality and is virtually mute about divorce and adultery: because anti-gay moralism costs virtually all of its supporters nothing (since that is a moral prohibition that does not constrain them), while heterosexual moral deviations -- from divorce to adultery to sex outside of marriage -- are rampant among the Values Voters faithful and thus removed from the realm of condemnation. Hence we have scads of people sitting around opposing same-sex marriage because of their professed belief in "Traditional Marriage" while their "third husbands" and multiple step-children and live-in girlfriends sit next to them on the couch.

They're all willing to cheer on the "rules of traditional marriage" which do not impose on them in any way (marriage must have a man and a woman -- no problem there). But no "Family Values" politician could possibly survive politically by seeking to enshrine with the force of law all of the other equally important prongs of "Traditional Marriage" (all of that dreary, outdated "until death do us part" business which would deny the "right" for Values Voters to dump their wives and move on to the "next wife" when the mood strikes, or remain shacked up with their various girlfriends and the like).

It goes without saying that no gay candidate would stand a chance of receiving the presidential nomination from the party that stands for Traditional Marriage. And indeed, the Idaho Family Values Association (entitled to great respect), in the wake of the Craig scandal, just called -- explicitly -- for the Republican Party to purge all gay politicians from the party:

The Party, in the wake of the Mark Foley incident in particular, can no longer straddle the fence on the issue of homosexual behavior. Even setting Senator Craig's situation aside, the Party should regard participation in the self-destructive homosexual lifestyle as incompatible with public service on behalf of the GOP.

But they would never call for the exclusion from the Party of political figures who dumped their wives and are on their "second marriage" or "third marriage" -- actions at least equally deviant from principles of "traditional marriage" as anything Sen. Craig did and which wreck the lives of Our Children far more -- because so many of their pious supporters engage in the same behavior, as Idaho's traditionally high divorce rates (.pdf) demonstrate. Indeed, the highest divorce rates are found in the parts of the country where the so-called "Traditional Marriage" movement thrives most strongly, namely the Christian Values regions in the South. Hence, no "Christian, family values" politician could faithfully adhere to a political position of "traditional marriage" and "traditional values" because to do so would be to alienate and condemn a huge portion of the members of that movement.

It is this same self-interested, cost-free moralism that explains how it could be that, with the exception of Mitt Romney, all of the leading presidential candidates in the Party of Traditional Marriage have personal lives that reflect everything except for those values, with all their wrecked marriages and multiple wives and long adulterous records and various "step-children" and the like. And even more revealingly, the leading lights of the Traditional Values movement -- from Rush Limbaugh to Newt Gingrich to Bill O'Reilly -- have some of the most morally depraved lives of any public figures, making most Hollywood celebrities seem chaste by comparison.

But their moral depravity is of the heterosexual variety, and thus perfectly tolerable, because to condemn them or repudiate them would be to make huge numbers of the Values Voters faithful feel condemned as well. And no political moralizing is possible if its mandates require real sacrifice or restraint from its adherents. That is and always has been the great sham that defines the exploitation of moral issues for political gain. It does everything except apply its alleged principles consistently.

Personally, I would be sympathetic to the notion -- now embedded as Required Belief among journalists -- that the right-wing "Values Voters" movement would at least be entitled to respect on the ground that they were driven by true conviction, even when that conviction demanded political sacrifice and imposed political cost. That would mean calling for purges of adulterous candidates and the shunning of people with broken marriages and especially laws which make divorce and recognition of "re-marriages" -- clear violations of the precepts of Traditional Christian Marriage as much as same-sex marriages -- difficult if not impossible.

That would demonstrate true loyalty to the claimed values. But this movement is the opposite of that. Their moralism exists only when it is cost-free and when it entails no personal sacrifice.

As one of the second-tier (at best) GOP candidates, Mike Huckabee, put it rather eloquently a couple of week ago:

The second thing, and this'll really wrangle, again, some of my Republican colleagues. Bill Clinton and Hillary went through some horrible experiences in their marriage, because of some of the reckless behavior that he has admitted he had. I'm not defending him on that -- it's indefensible. But they kept their marriage together. And a lot of the Republicans who have condemned them, and who talk about their platform of family values, interestingly didn't keep their own families together.

The issue is not that these Traditional Marriage proponents sometimes stray from their own standards. People are imperfect and will inevitably do so. The point is that they apply these supposed "principles" only when it is expedient to do so, only in ways that are politically comfortable, thus revealing the complete inauthenticity of their alleged convictions.

It is hard to remember an incident that more powerfully reveals the true, deeply unprincipled face of the "Traditional Marriage" movement than the completely disparate treatment from the GOP leadership for David Vitter and Larry Craig. As the likes of Mitch McConnell and (the divorced and adulterous) John McCain oh-so-nobly demand Craig's resignation while continuing to embrace David Vitter, the last thing we ought to be hearing is how this demonstrates newfound moral rectitude from the Republican Party. Whatever is driving the party leaders as they keep David Vitter and push out Larry Craig -- and similarly condemn same-sex marriages while saying nothing about (and often engaging in) divorces and multiple marriages -- devotion to "traditional moral values" is not it.

UPDATE: Not only does forcing Craig's resignation entail no cost for Republicans, the whole scandal is actually good for Republicans and terrible for Democrats. So sayeth the National Review. The disgraced Larry Craig was Mitt Romney's co-chairman, but Rich Lowry assures his readers that the true beneficiary of the Craig scandal is the Mitt Romney campaign. Jonah Goldberg then adds that the candidate truly hurt by the Craig scandal is Hillary Clinton.

It must be so soothing to get your news from National Review and always be assured that things are going exactly how you want them to, and even bathroom sex scandals involving leading figures from your own Pious political movement actually are politically beneficial and only harm the opposition.

UPDATE II: On MSNBC's Dan Abrams Report last night, Joan Walsh and Pat Buchanan argued vehemently about the Craig matter, during which Buchanan admitted that Republicans care about sex scandals when it is "especially against homosexual activity" (the transcript is not yet up, but the video is here).

To underscore that point rather powerfully, during that segment Emily Heil of Roll Call reported this:

If you look at David Vitter, I couldn't find anyone to talk to me about him in the days after his scandal. No one would talk to about it -- they said this is a private matter, this is a family member. And when [Vitter] eventually met with Republicans behind closed doors, they gave him a hearty round of applause, as I was told. I don't think Senator Craig is going to get that kind of reception.

That report is consistent with articles in the immediate aftermath of the Vitter disclosures, such as this article in Louisiana's News Star -- entitled: "GOP Leaders Support Vitter":

Republican leaders generally are circling the wagons around embattled U.S. Sen. David Vitter, Louisiana Republican Party Chairman Roger Villere said Thursday.

"The consensus is they don't want him to resign," Villere said after spending hours in phone consultation with Republicans for the past three days.

What wretched and transparent deceit. Can we at least dispense with the fiction that the Moral Values Senate caucus giving rousing applause to David Vitter is motivated by anything resembling actual principles when forcing Larry Craig to resign?

By Glenn Greenwald

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