Social conservatives, the once-powerful force that focused the Republican agenda on moral virtue and family values, have suffered a diminished brand on the national political landscape as a steady stream of their icons have fallen prey to the vices they once preached against.
Extramarital affairs, gambling, alcohol abuse, prostitution and sexual pursuit of minors have taken a toll on the GOP.
A tearful South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford became the latest social conservative to fall, confessing Wednesday to an affair with a woman that ended with a bizarre episode, in which he disappeared from his security detail and flew to Argentina for a visit, leaving his four sons and wife on Father’s Day weekend.
His televised acknowledgment followed an admission last week by Republican Sen. John Ensign of Nevada of an affair with a former campaign staffer who was also the wife of the senator’s former chief of staff.
In politics, hypocrisy has become a heavy cross to bear for those who once sought to own the moral high ground.
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“As champions of those standards, they are held to a higher standard,” said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, which promotes marriage and family as the foundation of civilization. “If you are going to hold up these issues, you have to live by them.”
He said Mr. Sanford, Mr. Ensign and before them Republican Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana, who admitted to frequenting a Washington call-girl ring, did the right thing by owning up to their failings.
Republicans’ family-values platform often invites charges of hypocrisy. It happened when conservative pundit and former drug czar William Bennett was discovered in 2003 to be a gambler.
In the late 1990s, during and after their pursuit of President Clinton on impeachment charges for a sexual liaison with an intern, several Republican luminaries acknowledged they, too, had indulged in affairs, including pro-life leader Rep. Henry Hyde of Illinois, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia and former Rep. Bob Livingston of Louisiana, who resigned just before assuming the speaker’s chair. Mr. Sanford voted in favor of three of four articles of impeachment against Mr. Clinton.
Ralph Reed Jr., a conservative American political activist and the first executive director of the Christian Coalition during the early 1990s, was later linked to the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal and donations from Indian casinos.
Still, Mr. Perkins said distancing itself from its family-values platform in order to insulate itself from charges of hypocrisy is a bigger threat to the Republican Party.
He said Republicans have been moving in that direction since former Rep. Mark Foley, Florida Republican, resigned from office in 2006 amid allegations he sent sexually explicit e-mails and instant messages to underage male congressional pages.
“I think they have tried to solve the issue by running from it,” Mr. Perkins said. “They don’t want to talk about moral values.”