EDITORIAL: Ensign’s scarlet letter

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An office affair and a blizzard of rule-bending are not the reason Sen. John Ensign, Nevada Republican, stands amid the irreparable wreckage of his personal reputation and political future. Such sleaze is all too typical in the nation’s capital, where power, money and sex stand out as a warped political trinity. Mix power and a sense of entitlement with the Washington social scene, and you get a bipartisan recipe for scandal. Right now, there are Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill on the same path, secure in the delusion that they won’t be caught.

Mr. Ensign’s failure is bigger than the D.C. cliche. He stands accused of lying to fellow Republican Sen. Tom Coburn even as the Oklahoma conservative tried to help him, resulting in yet another potential ethical mess. At the time of Mr. Ensign’s affair with the wife of one his senior aides and the subsequent cover-up, his fellow Republicans made him chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, where he was in charge of recruiting candidates and raising money for Republican Senate races across the country. He accepted this position of national responsibility in a year when Republicans were under assault and Democrats were in reach of a 60-vote Senate majority. There is no doubt Mr. Ensign failed to give the NRSC his full attention at a crucial time.

Democrats famously have rallied around their embattled philanderers with the cry that such misdeeds are “personal.” But among political leaders, personal failings always have public consequences. Perhaps Mr. Ensign’s consequence is named Sen. Al Franken, the former “Saturday Night Live” jokester who represents Minnesota in the upper chamber after a victory of just a few hundred votes. Regardless, Republicans in Nevada, Oklahoma and nationwide will be paying a price for years.

Mr. Ensign’s failure is emblematic of what needs to change in the Grand Old Party. In 1998, as a member of the House of Representatives, he voted to impeach President Clinton. At the time, he ripped the Democratic president for covering up his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. “The honorable thing for him to do is to resign and not put the country through this,” he said. As principled and just as Mr. Ensign’s vote remains, it reeks of hypocrisy to many today. Adultery is a bipartisan sin, but because conservatives righteously play the morality card, more is expected of them. There’s nothing unfair about that.

Today, the Republican Party stands in opposition to President Obama’s agenda of deficit spending and the reckless expansion of entitlements. It’s a prudent position that is somewhat undermined by the fact that under President George W. Bush, Republicans voted to expand entitlements, leading to massive deficit spending. The public can be forgiven for complaining about another whiff of hypocrisy on the issue of fiscal responsibility.

In the last generation, there have been few moments when the Republican Party has been more hobbled in pointing out the flaws of the Democrats - in both ethics and policy. Until Republicans clean up their own house, that won’t change. Many in the minority party are prematurely licking their lips in anticipation of the 2010 and 2012 elections, believing that an unpopular president will lead to electoral success for the opposition. Unless they keep their pants on and put the green eyeshade back on, Republicans don’t deserve to win.

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