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.”
Eric Schultz, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said the sex scandals would further demoralize a Republican Party that is already on the rocks after losing control of every vestige of power in Washington.
“Given how out of touch they are, this is the last thing Republicans need right now,” Mr. Schultz said. “I wonder where they’ll turn to fill the leadership vacuum - scandal-free David Vitter?”
Gary Bauer, president of American Values, a nonprofit group that promotes marriage, family, faith and freedom, said there are plenty of examples of moral weakness in both parties, including Mr. Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, which led to his impeachment trial, and former Democratic New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s affair with a call girl that forced him to resign.
“Both political parties have had a depressing number of cases of people that were unable to keep their promises to their families,” he said. “I think it is sad for the country that character issues seem to do in so many of our promising leaders.”
Focus on Family’s Carrie Gordon Earll agreed.
“If anything, it hurts the nation,” she said. “Any time you have an elected official who has a moral failure, I think it affects people’s general confidence in leadership. Decisions have consequences, and Gov. Sanford is experiencing that today.”
She said voters have one standard when it comes to marital fidelity, regardless of party. “Adultery is a moral failure, and I think the pubic doesn’t have a stomach for it,” she said.