Dept. of practicing, preaching

DEPT. OF PRACTICING, PREACHING…. Patrick Ruffini, a Republican strategist and blogger, had an interesting item yesterday on the GOP and adultery, and the apparent double-standard when it comes to the major political parties and infidelity.

At the core of the Sanford and Ensign episodes is the cloud of “hypocrisy” that hangs over any Republican who strays from the bonds of their marriage. (Quickly forgetting that all who commit adultery are hypocrites, having taken a solemn vow of marriage.) Because Democrats are perceived as more socially libertine, they get off easier.

This is a structural disadvantage that, on the margins, hurts Republican officeholders, forcing them into resignation or disgrace more easily than their equally adulterous Democratic counterparts.

Simply put, it is a strategic error to sanctify the idea that it’s worse when Republicans cheat.

Ruffini’s argument, at face value, is not unreasonable. Adultery is, he argues, a “human failing that strikes Democrats and Republicans equally.” With that in mind, the GOP should resist the temptation to “purge their ranks based exclusively on a test of personal moral conduct.”

I tend to see this differently. For one thing, I’m not at all sure that Republicans are forced into “resignation or disgrace” more easily than unfaithful Dems. In fact, I get the sense that’s backwards — the only recently caught adulterer to resign from office was Eliot Spitzer. Sanford, Ensign, Vitter, Craig, et al were all caught while in office, and each one ignored calls to step down.

But more to the point, shouldn’t there be a double standard? I can appreciate why Ruffini would lament a “structural disadvantage” on this, but hasn’t the Republican Party invited this disadvantage?

For a few 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.

All the while, the list of prominent Republican officeholders who cheat on their spouses keeps getting longer.

Ruffini thinks it’s a mistake to “sanctify the idea that it’s worse when Republicans cheat.” The problem is, it is worse. If the party doesn’t want to be held to a higher moral standard, the party probably ought to stop lecturing everyone else about higher moral standards.

If you help run Mothers Against Drunk Driving and you’re caught drunk driving, it’s going to be a bigger deal than the typical DUI. If you’re the local fire chief and you’re caught setting a fire, it’s going to be a bigger deal than the typical arson.

And if you’re part of a party that hails itself as the political arbiter of virtue and morality, it’s going to be a bigger deal when some of your party’s leading figures get caught in sex scandals.