As we all look forward to more sputtering news conference antics from Sen. Larry Craig, here’s hoping that the Idaho politician will eventually draw on traditional Republican principles and stand up for his right to engage in consensual sex in toilet stalls with men. Craig, a critic of the Patriot Act who weakened some of its worst provisions during last year’s renewal vote, clearly understands the need to keep the government from snooping willy-nilly on its citizens.
At first flush, the news that the 62-year-old senior senator from the Gem State pleaded guilty Aug. 8 to misdemeanor charges of disorderly conduct in a Minnesota airport men’s room is not simply embarrassing but humiliating -- especially to the people of Idaho, who returned him to office for the third time in 2002 with 65% of the vote. According to police reports, Craig tapped his foot near and ran his hand alongside his toilet stall divider, which the arresting officer said he recognized as a come-on for sex. After the cop, who was sitting in the adjacent stall, flashed his badge and made the arrest, Craig compounded his poor judgment by trying to invoke senatorial privilege. He handed the police officer his U.S. Senate business card and intoned, “What do you think of that?” Craig paid almost $600 in fines and fees and was sentenced to a year of probation and 10 days in a county jail (the latter was stayed).
It is easy -- because it is accurate -- to savor the rank hypocrisy of Craig’s personal and public behavior. An arch-social conservative, Craig voted in favor of the Defense of Marriage Act, a 1996 law that barred national recognition of gay unions, and he is a strong supporter of a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. It seems nothing short of pathetic that Craig, who had brushed off rumors of homosexual activity for years, would deny the option of matrimony to some of the same men from whom he supposedly sought sex in restrooms. (Craig said Monday that his actions had been misconstrued and denied engaging in any inappropriate conduct.)
But the Craig scandal also provides the Republican Party, battered into minority status in Congress after years of domestic and foreign overreach, a golden opportunity to recover its attractive minimal-government heritage, at least when it comes to using the state to police sexual behavior among consenting adults.
At least since the opening of the impeachment trial of President Clinton in 1998, when House Speaker-designate Bob Livingston (R-La.) announced his resignation after his extramarital affairs were made public, the GOP has shot itself in the foot repeatedly in the regulation of sexual activity. Certainly last year’s exposure of Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.), who bombarded teenage male congressional pages with racy instant messages even as he authored legislation aimed at online predators, played a key factor in the party of Lincoln’s massive loss in the midterm elections. While it remains to be seen if Craig’s scandal, or the recent revelation that the name of Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) appeared on a Washington escort service’s client list, will have any electoral fallout in 2008, the time is ripe for the GOP to reclaim the heritage of “Mr. Conservative,” the late Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.).
Goldwater, who inspired Ronald Reagan and helped lay the groundwork for the rise of the Republicans to majority status in the late 20th century, preached a small-government gospel that was appealing and logically consistent. To Goldwater, the state was inefficient at best and predicated on violence and coercion at worst. As much as possible, he argued, individuals should be left alone to pursue their happiness as they saw fit, whether in the workplace or the home. A longtime proponent of reproductive rights, Goldwater was an outspoken defender of gays and lesbians, noting during the original gays-in-the-military debates of the early 1990s that “you don’t have to be straight” to serve, “you just have to shoot straight.”
Partly owing to their own misbehavior, the Republicans have (thankfully) lost the culture wars, especially when it comes to shutting down alternative sexuality. They should follow the message of the architect of their success. As author Sheila Kennedy has written, “To Goldwater, government did not belong either in your boardroom or your bedroom.” Or, as Craig might add, in your bathroom.
Nick Gillespie is the editor of Reason magazine (reason.com).