Is the conservative movement rotten to its core?
South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford's bizarre revelation that he had an extramarital affair with a longtime female friend in Argentina has dealt another blow to an already decrepit Republican Party. After losing control of Congress in 2006 and the White House in last year's election, the Republicans are not only in the minority; they also are adrift and leaderless. Mr. Sanford was highly touted as one who could advance new ideas, as a fresh face for Republican conservatives.
He carved out a distinct political identity by fusing a command of policy with Southern folksiness. Pro-tax-cuts, pro-life and a staunch critic of big government, Mr. Sanford is a solid conservative. He has been a champion of old-fashioned, austere values such as frugality, modesty and Christian morality. His Southern conservatism is rooted in God, country and family. Unlike most leaders in his party, Mr. Sanford is not a Reagan Republican. He does not mouth the mantra of the politics of sunny optimism - which during the past 10 years has become a form of meaningless pandering.
He has openly confronted America's decline, often making comparisons to the decadent Roman Empire. He rightly pointed out that, like ancient Rome, America is plagued by malaise and is in decay: Our borders have become porous; our politics are rife with factionalism; our economy is slowly being strangled by bureaucratic statism; our national identity is disintegrating; and our culture is ravaged by neo-pagan hedonism and moral permissiveness.
His greatest accomplishment as governor is that he has abolished the illegal $155 million budget deficit he inherited from his predecessor. Mr. Sanford is a rare breed: He takes constitutional requirements seriously. And he balanced the budget by slashing spending.
He emerged as a national leader against President Obama's $787 billion economic stimulus plan. Mr. Sanford rejected parts of the stimulus funds designated for his state because they came with federal strings attached. His opposition angered not only South Carolina Democrats, but many moderate state Republicans as well.
Yet now he has squandered much of his legacy on an act of pure folly.
His extramarital affair gave his enemies the political rope they needed to hang him finally. Whether or not Mr. Sanford resigns is irrelevant. He is spent as a national political force. His erratic and bizarre behavior - the weird claims that he was hiking on an undisclosed path along the Appalachian Trail; his rambling, confused news conference announcing his infidelity; and the steamy e-mails that have been published on the correspondence between him and his Argentine mistress - have doomed his chances as a Republican presidential contender in 2012. He has become a laughingstock.
Yet conservatives, too, are in his sinking ship.
Mr. Sanford is only one in a long line of Republican politicians who, while sounding like preachers and priests, have behaved like perverts and pimps. Sen. John Ensign of Nevada recently admitted to an extramarital affair with a former female staff member. Former Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho was brought down by a gay-sex sting operation in a Minneapolis airport. Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana was identified as a client of a Washington escort service (and faces a re-election challenge from - I'm not making this up - a former porn star who claims she is running to spotlight his hypocrisy). And, of course, there was former Florida Rep. Mark Foley, who was forced to resign after revelations of improper e-mails with teenage male House pages.
Conservatives generally argue that the Democrats also have such scandals but that the liberal media hold Republicans to a higher standard. True. Democrats have their share of sexual predators and philanderers: former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards and former President Bill Clinton - for starters. Yet Democrats do not have to worry about being called hypocrites: They are the self-avowed party of death and sex. They champion abortion, gay rights, sex education, the distribution of condoms to minors and legalized pornography. Outside of abortion, no other issue so thoroughly galvanizes the liberal base as opposition to sexual abstinence. The Democrats are creatures of the sexual revolution.
Republicans - in theory, anyway - are supposed to be the party of Middle America. Their ideological mission is to advance not only free-market capitalism, but also the traditional family and Christian values. The modern Republican Party was formed in opposition to the 1960s counterculture. Yet the counterculture has become the dominant culture; traditional America is a dwindling rump. The times have changed. And slowly, but surely, our sex-obsessed culture is swallowing Republicans.
Mr. Sanford's fall is not simply a Shakespearean tragedy. It is a reflection of the moral collapse of the conservative movement. The American right is permeated with sanctimonious hypocrites who talk like traditionalists but live like libertines. At its core, conservatism is not simply a set of beliefs; it is a way of life - one that is anchored in the natural moral order centered on faith, family and freedom. This is the conservative holy trinity. And it is now being defamed by its own high priests.
Jeffrey T. Kuhner is a columnist at The Washington Times and president of the Edmund Burke Institute, a Washington-based think tank.