Pondering Republicans, double standards, and sex

The first line of Gail Collins’ latest NYT column reads, “What is it with Republicans lately?”

Of course, that question could lead in all kinds of interesting directions, since Republicans have been up to no good in more areas than one. In this case, however, Collins is largely interested in the GOP and sex.

What is it with Republicans lately? Is there something about being a leader of the family-values party that makes you want to go out and commit adultery?

They certainly don’t have a lock on the infidelity market, and heaven knows we all remember John Edwards. But, lately, the G.O.P. has shown a genius for putting a peculiar, newsworthy spin on illicit sex. A married congressman hunting for babes is bad. A married congressman hunting for babes by posting a half-naked photo of himself on the Internet is Republican.

A married governor who fathers an illegitimate child is awful. A married governor who fathers an illegitimate child by a staff member of the family home and then fails to mention it to his wife for more than 10 years is Republican.

A married senator who has an affair with an employee is a jerk. A married senator who has an affair with an employee who is the wife of his chief of staff, and whose adultery is the subject of ongoing discussion at his Congressional prayer group, is Republican.

We haven’t even gotten to Newt Gingrich yet!

And really, Collins’ column, if she had more space, could have gone on with many other recent examples. She highlights the three most recent Republican scandals — Chris Lee, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and John Ensign — but let’s also not forget David Vitter, Larry Craig, Mark Sanford, Jim Gibbons, Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, and others.

To be sure, the Republican response — it’s a bipartisan issue — is not without merit. I’m sure many on the right can rattle off a related list of their own: Bill Clinton, John Edwards, Eliot Spitzer, etc.

But Collins’ larger point is a good one: not only do the Republican scandals seem worse in their scope and severity, but we’re talking about “the family-values party.” Indeed, except for Giuliani and maybe Schwarzenegger, all of the recent Republicans caught with their pants down have been sleazy and hypocritical.

It’s generally wise to avoid double standards, but what about when a party invites one? For decades, Republican candidates at every level have emphasized the GOP’s moral superiority on “family values.” If you want to protect the “sanctity of marriage,” the argument went, it’s incumbent on you to vote Republican. There’s a culture war underway, Americans have been told, and Democrats just aren’t as reliable on these issues as the GOP.

Republicans, in other words, have demanded the highest moral standards, while failing in almost comical ways to meet these standards themselves.

One can make a very compelling case that politicians’ private lives should be off-limits altogether, and officials’ personal/family problems are their business, not ours. But if a party goes out of its way to hold itself out as the arbiters of virtue, it should expect a more intense pushback when it’s caught falling short.