Some pundit once observed, “A liberal is someone who wants to keep the government out of the bedroom; a conservative is someone who wants to keep the government out of the rest of the house.”
Or something like that. At least, I think a pundit said it; I don’t believe I’m snarky enough to come up with that by myself.
It’s dangerous to generalize, and it’s also dangerous to assume that everyone in politics is one or the other. In fact, most people in Washington are not out to advance an ideology so much as to advance themselves. They sit with the Republicans or Democrats because that’s the party that matched their views when they were young and idealistic, but it’s not long before they forget where they came from.
Those people arrive in Washington with big plans to advance their views, which they assume must be the views of all their constituents (because, after all, 56% of the registered voters who actually bothered to show up voted for them, so it must be a mandate!)
However, spending all your time in Washington is like eating supersized fast food three times a day while washing your clothes in warm water: No matter how much you convince yourself that you’re changing your surroundings, it’s you who’s being changed.
Which brings me to Mark Souder.
Souder was a member of the House of Representative for eight terms. He comes from my corner of Indiana, a place where, frankly, we don’t expect politicians to do much good.
Still, he managed to get himself reelected again and again to the House, a place where elections are so frequent that the main job is running for office, with governing the country being little more than a side hobby.
Then he had an affair.
If Souder was a Democrat, it wouldn’t cause as much fuss. I’m not casting aspersions on Democrats, by the way – on the contrary, the difference has more to do with where they start than with where they end up. Just the same, when a Democrat has an affair they pat him on the back sympathetically and give him a committee chairmanship. FDR and JKF had affairs, yet were two of our better Presidents (at least, from a foreign policy standpoint). Bill Clinton was impeached not for having an affair, but for lying about it, although I’d guess he got punished enough in private. Ted Kennedy managed to kill a young lady and get away with it, which in my book counts as being worse than an affair.
Let me remind you again, we’re generalizing wildly. Plenty of Dems have been sunk by scandal, and many a Rep (Rep?) has waded through the muck and gained the opposite bank. For instance, a Democratic Representative from New York resigned in March after word got out that he was sexually harassing male staffers. Still, the difference is that they started from separate points.
You see, Sounder actively campaigned for what’s traditionally called family values. Family values – I think most people would agree – include dancing with the one who brought you or, in other words, not fooling around on the side. Souder, it turns out, was having a fling with a staffer, something that I suspect is not at all uncommon with Washington-types.
Somewhat more uncommon is the charge that they were having their fling at various public access sites and state parks. Seriously, a Congressman can’t afford a hotel and some hush money? Maybe they needed that pay raise, after all.
Way back in 1994, Souder was part of the Republican Revolution, a move to change the balance of power in Washington. Something similar is going on now, in the form of what’s being called the Tea Party movement, with the main difference being that the Tea Partiers hate both major parties and would just as soon clean house in Washington and throw all the bums out. So why didn’t they throw Souder out in the primary, before news of the affair became public? Especially since he originally campaigned on a platform of term limits, but kept returning to the trough anyway?
Three things: First, the average Tea Partier leans conservative: Although they’ve endorsed a Democrat here and there, when given only two choices they usually go Republican. Second, Souder’s main Republican rival came off as a carpet bagger, living in Indianapolis but renting an apartment in Fort Wayne just to say he lived in the district. Third, it’s just plain hard to defeat an incumbent. All else being equal, it’s usually their race to lose. (Which is one reason why I think Obama’s not in as much trouble as some people believe he is.)
I’m not saying Democrats don’t talk about values and morals, nor am I suggesting they have none, although spending more than a few years in Washington seems to suck the morals out of all but the strongest on both sides. What I am saying is that Democratic candidates don’t tend to campaign on that issue, and their platform often features what conservatives think of as anti-family values. (Exceptions? Sure, all over the place – see above note about generalizing.)
As a result, when a Democrat gets caught in flagrante delicto, as Ted Kennedy allegedly was on the floor of a restaurant in 1987 (seriously, people – hotels can be very discreet), people tend to say:
What do I think? I thought you’d never ask. I believe that we have the right to hold
those people, our elected representatives, to a higher standard. However, I also believe that the job they do in seats of power -- what they accomplish, how they accomplish it, and whether they strengthen or weaken our nation -- is way more important than what they do after punching the clock.
Just the same, if family values is part of your platform, we the people have the right to expect it to be part of your life.
Souder left that press conference, the one where he admitted the affair, with his head hung in shame. That’s as it should be.