After Newt’s smashing victory in South Carolina, the long battle between Gingrich and Romney may come down to a fundamental question about forgiveness: Do Christian conservatives, who cast some 60 percent of Republican ballots in the Palmetto State, consider marital misbehavior a less significant, more forgivable abomination than a long-abandoned pro-choice position on abortion?
If conservatives are ready to believe that Newt's many marital failings are a thing of the past and to accept the idea that he's a changed and better man, why are they so reluctant to believe that Mitt's many ideological failings are a thing of the past and to accept the idea that he's also a changed and better man?
Both candidates insist that they’ve permanently transformed themselves and will never go back to the bad old days of serial infidelity (in Newt’s case) or political moderation (in Mitt’s case). For both men, their protestations seem credible. Gingrich has been married to Callista for nearly a dozen years and he’ll be 69 years old at the time of the election. Romney has also curbed his instinct for ideological meandering, maintaining consistent, unapologetically conservative positions since his final years as Massachusetts governor in 2005 and 2006. Moreover, as Peggy Noonan observes, his previous high-profile changes on abortion and other issues probably vaccinate him against further vacillation: having already reversed himself once, he can hardly retain credibility if he suddenly announces he’s switching back.
To put it more generally: Do serious but long-ago sins in personal conduct allow for more ready redemption than serious but long-ago sins in political positioning?
This question highlights some of the hypocrisy currently afflicting Republican partisans on the issue of infidelity. Former Bush speechwriter Pete Wehner points out that the same people who insisted that Bill Clinton deserved condemnation and even impeachment for his flamboyant failings as a husband now readily embrace Newt Gingrich despite even more flamboyant failings in his personal past.
Of course, Newtonians can explain that conservative champions (including their guy, Speaker of the House during the Lewinsky impeachment crisis) attacked Clinton over current, or at least recent, hanky-panky; in the case of Gingrich, however, the lamentable conduct occurred more than 12 years ago and only became known to the public after Newt left public office.
This distinction does not, however, erase another contrast that actually works to Clinton's advantage: in the case of the embattled Slick Willy, his misbehavior never destroyed a marriage and his aggrieved wife not only forgave him but enthusiastically defended him. In the case of Gingrich his ex-wives (yes, plural) have been famously less willing to reconcile or to rally to their one-time hubby's behalf. In fact, the daughters he often cites as defending his conduct were not the children of Marianne (the ex who is currently providing angry ammunition to Gingrich critics in interviews with ABC and The Washington Post) but were in fact the daughters of first wife Jackie—who presumably resent second wife Marianne for having shattered their mother’s marriage in a previous extramarital romp with the irrepressible Newt.
Yes, in the famous Facebook phrase, “it’s complicated,” but how can conservatives (including Gingrich himself) possibly defend the idea that it made sense to convulse the country and pursue impeachment over Clinton's infidelity, while finding it somehow inappropriate, even outrageous and “despicable” (to use Newt’s own language) if members of the media dare to ask questions about Newt's infidelity? Should Christian conservatives really grant a special pass to fiercely flawed leaders who compensate for their own shortcomings by taking impassioned pro-family stands in public?
In this particular presidential race, conservatives crave passion above all and that fervent desire might shape their unequal application of forgiveness.
Such logic bears an eerie resemblance to the notorious statement by Nina Burleigh (then of Time magazine) that she would gladly forgive Bill Clinton for any personal maltreatment of women, and even provide him with her personal sexual services, as long as he faithfully defended abortion rights. In a sense, such thinking actually matches liberal priorities since the left regularly exalts the importance of politics over private life, of “public service” above building businesses or sustaining families. But for conservatives, who trumpet values of vibrant families and personal faith, it’s wildly inconsistent to embrace the idea that public positions matter more than private character.
Certainly, forgiveness constitutes a beautiful quality of human existence, extolled in both Christian and Jewish traditions. According to ancient wisdom, forgiveness blesses both those who receive it and those who extend it. Republicans would certainly strengthen their party and enhance their chances for victory if they could offer absolution to both of their frontrunners for past failings, ideological as well as personal. Judge the candidates as they are today, not based on their mistakes of previous years. Emphasize their common commitments on all major issues and their shared dedication to steering the nation in a new direction. It distracts from Barack Obama’s relevant and recent failings to focus on Newt’s censure and fine by the House of Representatives 15 years ago, or Mitt’s endorsement of gay rights 18 years ago. In other words, focus on the future instead of the past and allow the candidates to offer their positive vision for tomorrow rather than their apologies for yesterday.
But this principle should be consistently, not selectively, applied; it makes no sense to say that Newt’s personal sins don’t count because he committed them years ago, but Mitt’s political errors still count even though he disowned them years ago.
It’s possible, of course, that religious prejudice (or at least preference) might help to explain the double standard, at least for some voters in South Carolina. Christian leaders who have endorsed Newt Gingrich often cite his well-advertised conversion to Catholicism (he had originally identified as a Lutheran, then a Baptist) as a basis for accepting the idea that he’s changed his very nature and left behind the wayward husband of yesteryear. Mitt, on the other hand, has maintained an unwavering commitment to the faith of his ancestors, living his life as a deeply committed member of the Church of Jesus Christ Latter Day Saints. If he rejected that church (no, it won't happen) and embraced, say, Catholic commitment à la Gingrich, would unconvinced social conservatives finally accept the idea he had sincerely shifted his approach to abortion? Many of them probably would, which raises the ugly possibility that part of the greater skepticism to changes in Romney’s outlook than to the transformation of Newt’s character relates to deep doubts on the part of Christian conservatives about the nature of Mitt’s Mormon faith.
A general GOP amnesty on past transgressions would also need to overcome the classic distinction between crimes of passion and crimes of calculation were it to apply equally to Romney and Gingrich. Emotionally, and perhaps irrationally, we more readily forgive sins of the heart born of passion and impulsiveness than misdeeds of dissembling and deception in the cause of personal advancement. Newt’s marital infidelity represents the ultimate in lustful, emotional, irrational misbehavior—cruel and selfish to those around him, but clearly arising from powerful inner urges rather than a drive for increased power and standing. Mitt, on the other hand, looks like a cold conniver in his shifts on issues, with the widespread assumption that he altered core values for the sake of votes.
In this particular presidential race, conservatives crave passion and authenticity above all and that fervent desire might shape their unequal application of forgiveness. Many Republicans yearn for a candidate who will confront, discredit and ultimately disgrace Barack Obama, not just defeat him at the polls. They want emotion, intensity and anger, not mild or logical persuasion, from their standard bearer. In this context, it becomes perhaps inevitable that true believers on the right will continue to find it easier to forgive Newt Gingrich his crimes of the heart than to forget Mitt Romney’s mistakes of the head.