“As Republican Members of the House of Representatives and as citizens seeking
to join that body we propose not just to change its policies, but even more important,
to restore the bonds of trust between the people and their elected representatives …
To restore accountability to Congress. To end its cycle of scandal and disgrace.”
—From the Republican Party’s Contract With America (1994)
They took the reigns of power 12 years ago on a pledge of moral values and fiscal responsibility. Among the first legislative promises in their Contract With America were the “Fiscal Responsibility Act” and the “Personal Responsibility Act.”
As history often has it, though, the 2006 Republican Party looks like the very monster it vowed to slay in 1994. Bribery, corruption, back-room deals, fiscal mismanagement — and now the apparent cover-up by its leadership of a sexual predator — define today’s Grand Old Party.
But the scandal surrounding lurid e-mails sent by former U.S. Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) to underage congressional pages has been part of a larger story brewing over the past few years. It speaks to a political party that has lost its moral and ethical compass while never missing a chance to paint itself as the party of family values, and one that has placed winning elections above all else.
Consider how far the pre-eminent voices of conservative evangelism have fallen of late.
Talk radio icon Rush Limbaugh always maintained a hard line on those suffering drug addiction. On-air in 1995, Limbaugh said that “if people are violating the law by doing drugs, they ought to be accused and they ought to be convicted and they ought to be sent up.”
But just two years ago, Limbaugh himself faced a criminal investigation for purchasing more than 30,000 OxyContin, Lorcet and hydrocodone pills. Limbaugh denied the allegations until incontrovertible proof surfaced (his housekeeper turned over e-mails and ledgers), then admitted his addiction on-air, spent a month in rehab and last year reached a plea deal with prosecutors.
Equally as brazen is William J. Bennett, arguably the person most associated with lectures on morality and personal responsibility. For decades, Bennett led the Republican cultural war with his best-selling books, “The Book of Virtues,” “The Moral Compass” and “The Death of Outrage,” where he decried the public’s failure to take President Clinton’s sins more seriously.
In 2004, Bennett admitted he had wagered and lost more than $8 million at Las Vegas and Atlantic City casinos over the last decade (Bennett claims he broke even). Republicans rose to defend his actions, saying he never specifically criticized gambling and that his gambling never harmed anyone else — arguments usually reserved for defenders of legalization of drugs and prostitution.
Nevertheless, as blogger Josh Marshall remarked then, “Bennett spent the last dozen or more years not only being a big hawker of ‘morality,’ but also a prime advocate of the proposition that there is an unbroken thread connecting our private habits to our public selves and that we — the media, the chatterers, everyone — should happily pull on that thread and see what we find.”
And at the very time Republicans moved to impeach Clinton for trying to cover up an extramarital affair, then-outgoing Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich was having an affair with a congressional aide 23 years his junior. Gingrich’s heir apparent, U.S. Rep. Bob Livingston, fared no better after confessing, on the House floor, his own marital infidelities before ever being sworn in. The Republicans then turned to a little-known former wrestling coach named Denny Hastert to pick up the pieces.
Of course, Hastert now faces public outcry that he put his party’s electoral hopes above protecting teenage pages. His survival as Speaker seems doubtful.
Clearly members of both political parties fall victim to their own personal failings, but it’s the Republican Party that’s mastered the technique of legislating social behavior as a political wedge to scare voters and help win elections, while hiding behind a phony façade of moral superiority.
But on Nov. 7, voters will pass judgment on how they’re governed. One hopes they’ll no longer accept holier-than-thou political leaders taking to their bully pulpits to condemn the moral failings of our society while behaving in those very same ways when they think no one is watching.
While the Republican establishment appears to have little problem with its own hypocrisy, there are increasing signs that voters do and that 2006 may end where 1994 began, with the winds of change blowing through Washington.
Mark Nickolas is publisher of Kentucky’s most widely read political blog, BluegrassReport.org. Contact him at Mark@BluegrassReport.org