'Values' Choice for The GOP
It's possible that the Mark Foley scandal could finally end the phony, trumped-up "culture war" that the Republican Party has so expertly exploited all these years -- possible, but not likely. I'm afraid the Foley episode will be remembered as just another bloody battle, one with lots of collateral damage.
The Republicans wouldn't be where they are today -- in control of the White House and all of Capitol Hill -- if they hadn't portrayed themselves as the stalwart defenders of moral standards and painted Democrats as a bunch of anything-goes libertines. Republicans promised social and religious conservatives that the values they treasure would not only be respected but written into law. Even if they didn't deliver on these promises, or even try very hard, Republicans paid enough lip service to moral issues to keep "values voters" inside the tent.
It was a political masterstroke, but it required creating and sustaining an illusion -- that Republican officeholders themselves not only talked the talk but walked the walk, that in their own lives they adhered to these deeply conservative moral standards. Human nature being what it is, there was no way this illusion could be sustained.
So for a party that crusades against gay marriage and welcomes voters that consider homosexuality a sin or a disease, headlines about a gay Republican congressman lusting after underage male congressional pages are a problem. The emerging outlines of a coverup -- allegations that the Republican speaker of the House, or at least his aides, got wind of Foley's little problem months or years ago -- are an even bigger problem.
And it will come as a surprise to some religious conservatives that so many Republicans involved in the scandal are gay -- Foley; his former aide Kirk Fordham; a former clerk of the House, Jeff Trandahl. The Post reported yesterday that Rep. Jim Kolbe of Arizona, the one openly gay Republican congressman, saw "inappropriate" e-mail correspondence between Foley and young pages as long ago as 2000.
It comes as no "October surprise" to the Republican leadership that there are gay men -- and, yes, lesbians, too -- working on Capitol Hill, some in high-ranking positions. Before the Foley scandal runs its course, we will probably learn of other gay staff members on the Hill. These people are good at their jobs, and their sexual orientation is, of course, irrelevant. The understanding, in these years of Republican hegemony, reportedly has been something akin to don't ask, don't tell.
But some conservative activists are irate that the "values" party would allow such an arrangement. Cliff Kincaid of Accuracy in Media, a conservative watchdog, thundered on the group's Web site yesterday that "House leaders permitted homosexuals to infiltrate and manipulate the party apparatus while they publicly postured as friends of family values and traditional marriage. The facade is now in ruins."
In other words, Republican House leaders secretly harbored fairly modern attitudes toward homosexuality. How inexcusable.
The culture war is supposed to be about morality, but really it's a crusade to compel Americans to follow certain norms of private behavior that some social and religious conservatives believe are mandated by sociology, nature or God. Republican officeholders have paid lip service to this crusade, all the while knowing that the human family is diverse and fallible. They know that the gravest threat to marriage is the heterosexual divorce rate. They know that Republicans drink, swear, carouse and have affairs, just like Democrats. They know that homosexuals aren't devils.
Most Americans know all of this, too, by the way. Main Street hasn't been Hicksville for a long time.
But Republicans positioned themselves as our national Church Lady and were rewarded with the support of the staunchest religious conservatives, who now feel betrayed. Faced with the spreading Foley scandal, the party has a choice.
The party can look America in the face and say, "Folks, we're all just human, and while we should strive to adhere to the highest moral standards, this whole idea of writing a specific, narrow, fundamentalist Christian view of morality into law is really not a good idea. Even those of us who thought that way when we came to Washington realize we were wrong. Condemning others just because they are different doesn't make us stronger or better, it makes us weaker and poorer. As Barry Goldwater would have said, live and let live."
Or the party can purge its gay staffers, maybe symbolically burn a few at the stake, and continue to pretend that you can legislate what is permitted to reside in American hearts and minds. Unfortunately, that's where it looks like we're headed.