Back in March, when Republicans in Helena had done some really dumb things, we asked a similar question.
We refrained from using that same question regarding this latest GOP scandal involving Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho, fearing that someone would take it as an intentional (or more embarrassingly, unintentional) double-entendre.
The mind boggles, as with the Sen. David Vitter scandal, the Foley scandal, the Newt Gingrich scandal, etc. Is it really that hard to figure out that trumpeting moral values while living like an alley cat (with apologies to any alley cats reading this column) is a formula for political disaster?
Mitt Romney is running scared from his buddy Larry right now. Who knows who else will be affected by this?
Many years ago, there was a meeting (true story, as we recall) of psychiatrists and other mental health professionals. A speaker was scheduled to speak on ethical practice in psychiatry.
He came up to the podium, addressing the large auditorium full of shrinks, and said something to the effect of: "Here's your ethical guidelines: don't have sex with your patients. Any questions?"
After the stunned silence, he continued on to say that nearly every ethical disciplinary action he had been involved with in shrinkdom involved said professionals having sex with those they were supposed to be helping. He may not have said, "is it really that difficult to stay out of trouble?" in so many words, but that was the gist of the short talk -- and included in the talk was the admonition that "you will get caught, eventually."
Professional politicians probably more often resemble those who need psychiatric help than they do those who can provide it, but the analogy is pretty clear. Your sins will find you out. Maybe you'll slide by once, but not indefinitely.
Republicans often complain that there is a double standard involved regarding sex scandals -- after all, no one really seems to care if Democrats are out doing the wild thing with the wrong thing -- and if they are caught in flagrante delicto, their fellow Democrats defend them to the death.
This really isn't a valid complaint, however. After all, Democrats don't claim to be a party that defends traditional moral standards.
A more valid complaint would be that, John Edwards, a man who claims to be a class-warfare populist and who decries the existence of "two Americas" lives in a 28,000 square ft. house (when, with a bit of economizing he could probably squeeze into a 9000 square ft. house) -- and yet is embraced and forgiven for this by his progressive supporters.
Or that Al Gore wastes energy and produces CO2 on a striking scale at his own mansion and in jetting around in private airplanes rather than flying commercial or taking a train -- and yet is treated as an environmental demigod.
Or that President Clinton abused a grossly unequal relationship in the workplace to satisfy his sexual needs -- and yet is considered to be a women's rights icon.
Here, too, these aren't perhaps valid complaints, since Democrats have never given much credence to the idea that personal behavior is predictive of or relevant to public policy.
Put differently, average Republicans have traditionally tended to look at someone like Rudy Giuliani's shabby and shameless treatment of his second wife and wonder to themselves, "if he'd do that to his wife, what kind of conscience will he have about things that will affect me?"
On the other hand, Democrats tend to look pretty strictly at how political figures use political power -- how do they vote, what use do they make of rhetoric, and can they outsmart the opposition. Even when the hypocrisies in their personal lives would seem to have quite direct illustrative bearings on issues that progressive Democrats care about (see the above examples,) those hypocrisies tend to be ignored.
Perhaps a lesson for Republicans is that we should bring our candidates up short when they start to talk about "family values" and what-not, telling them that we really don't care a whit how they talk -- or even how they live. We should tell them that we only care about how they vote and how effective they are at pushing forward conservative policies.
For the most part, Republicans are increasingly voting that way, but old habits die hard.
The problem is that a whole lot of Republicans really want leaders who are faithful to their spouses, who don't do drugs, who don't seduce interns and pages, and who can be moral examples for Americans to look up to.
But given all of our recent experiences, perhaps the real take-home message for Republicans should be that if a candidate decides to make his personal moral values a campaign issue -- think about voting for someone else.