Overnight, Nancy Pelosi has emerged as the nation's soccer grandmom, disgusted with the GOP leadership's alleged partisan coverup of a sex "predator" and "pedophile." (Foley may or may not be a predator, but pedophiles don't dig post-pubescent teens; ephebophiles do.)
Now, let me be clear. I carry no water for the House GOP. Less than a month ago, in these very pages, I wrote that I thought it would probably be a good thing if the Republicans lost the House. So, I'm hardly inclined to rally to their flag because of their handling of this Foley mess. But let me make a prediction: Despite the Crucible-like moral panic sweeping Washington right now, this will backfire on Democrats, liberals and the gay left.
Self-described progressives are great at whipping up a moral frenzy when it serves their purposes, and hilariously indignant when Moral Majority types return fire in kind. Remember the national bout of St. Vitus' dance over sexual harassment in the late 1980s and early 1990s? Liberals made sexual harassment their signature issue, rending their clothes and gnashing their teeth over Sens. John Tower and Bob Packwood and Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, among others. The puritanical zeal of these inquisitions cannot be exaggerated.
And then came Bill Clinton, who was, by any fair measure, a worse womanizer than Thomas or the rest of them. The Paula Jones sexual harassment lawsuit led, inexorably, to revelations of alleged rape and scandalous behavior with an intern. Forced to choose between power and principle, liberals and feminists held an impromptu fire sale on principles.
Whereas once feminists insisted that "women don't make these things up," accusations of rape were dismissed instantaneously. Whereas once zero tolerance was the rule ("no means no"), feminist deity Gloria Steinem suddenly advanced a one-free-grope rule for powerful men. Whereas once even the appearance of impropriety was unacceptable, feminists suddenly argued that everyone should lighten up. Former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, elected in 1992 — the "Year of the Woman" — as part of the anti-Thomas "backlash," argued that female interns should count themselves lucky in the Clinton White House. After all, she said, "30 years ago, women weren't even allowed to be White House interns."
Now, it would be unfair to suggest that liberals have been clamoring for gays to have an unfettered right to hit on teenage boys and are only reversing themselves out of partisan opportunism. Although the fact that liberals hardly objected to Democratic Rep. Gerry Studds' continued service in the House for 13 years after he unapologetically admitted to having had actual sex with a teen page — as opposed to the less harmful cyber variety — and after an investigation revealed his advances were not always invited does cast a harsh light on those now screeching about Foley being a "sexual predator."
But it is fair to say liberals aren't thinking things through. Democratic strategist Bob Beckel suggested this week that the mere fact Foley is gay should have "raised questions" about his friendships with pages. If Foley were a Democrat and GOP spinners suggested gays are automatically suspect as predators, the now-silent Human Rights Campaign and other gay rights groups would go ballistic.
What liberals don't understand is that social conservatives actually believe their moral rhetoric, even when it's politically inconvenient. That's why GOP Rep. Bob Livingston of Louisiana had to resign when his marital infidelities became public during the Clinton impeachment, much to the chagrin of Democrats who wanted to advance the "everybody does it" defense of President Clinton. And that's why vast numbers of social conservatives now want Speaker J. Dennis Hastert's head on a pike.
Meanwhile, the only moral lapse that reliably and consistently offends all liberals collectively is hypocrisy. As Howard Dean declared on "Meet the Press" last year: "Everybody has ethical shortcomings. We ought not to lecture each other about our ethical shortcomings." But he continued: "I will use whatever position I have in order to root out hypocrisy." This is a remarkably convenient principle insofar as it can indict only people with actual principles.
Fanning the flames of righteous fervor over Foley will probably reap electoral benefits for Democrats. But the time will come when something like the "Foley standard" will be inconvenient to Democrats. In response, liberals will hold another fire sale. And yet, they will be stunned again when people claim the Democrats don't stand for anything.