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Morals Authority

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Is it the sex … or just the hypocrisy? In discussing the Republicans' potential "zipper problem" in his morning column, the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz asks the million dollar question:
Does [Hustler publisher Larry] Flynt's goal of exposing political hypocrites--along the way, back in '99, he cost speaker-to-be Bob Livingston his House seat--mean that only conservative Republicans are targeted, and liberal Democrats get a pass?
And the Politico starts to wonder if the Vitter story won't cost the Republican party at the ballot box:
Embarrassment for the GOP was entertainment for many others, as people in Washington and around the nation chortled over the latest stubbed toe for a crowd that took power, and held it, in large measure by decrying the decay of traditional values and by issuing censorious attacks on the personal failings of political rivals.

Beyond the chortling, however, the Vitter scandal is a small piece of a much more significant development: The demoralized state of the social conservative movement on the brink of the 2008 election.

While I have to take issue with the Politico's characterization that we're on "the brink of the 2008 election" in July of 2007, it's true that the Republicans have had a particularly tough 10 months on the "values" front. From "family values" candidate David Vitter, being tied this week to a number of prostitution rings, to Internet morality policeman Congressman Mark Foley being caught last fall behaving immorally (zing!) on the Internet (oof!), their halos have been tarnished more than a tad.

But Kurtz's point is valid. Democrats have moral issues, too – from Clinton to Cisneros to Condit -- so why does it seem to some of us that the Republicans get covered more harshly than their counterparts across the aisle?

I ask again: Is it the sex, or is it the hypocrisy?

And this time I have an answer: Yes.

First of all, the sex. Politicians have to speak to their bases. And in the case of most Republicans, that means that we are dealing with a more pious constituency. (Yes, there are millions of religious Democrats, but they tend not to speak of illicit sex as critically or judgmentally as those on the right.) So, for Republicans, the sex means more to the people they represent. It's as if a Democrat from a well-known liberal district was found to be racially insensitive. Different political environments have their own requirements and checklists for their politicians. (I mean, look at the very definition of liberal.) It's exactly this dynamic that drove the Al Gore "carbon footprint" story as well as that overblown (pun intended) story about a certain champion of the poor and his expensive haircut.

Second is what I call the "Identity Check" – a concept related to the angle above. There are signature traits that a politician puts on the menu for potential voters to judge him on. His or her family, straight-arrow lifestyle, tolerance, etc. I think that when a candidate makes a values issue or a personal virtue a selling point, then his or her transgressions become more newsworthy. That's what takes the sex stories from damaging to scandalous. Regardless of anybody's political bent, if you see a political leader saying one thing and doing the near opposite, it's going to make you livid.

(This piece has been corrected from its initial version. Congressman Foley was originally misidentified as Tom Foley, not Mark Foley.)