With Friends Like Mitt

You might want to get a dog.

Sen. Larry Craig 

After hearing about Larry Craig’s arrest, Mitt Romney ran from his former Idaho campaign chairman as if he’d been in the next stall. “Once again, we’ve found people in Washington have not lived up to the level of respect and dignity that we would expect for somebody that gets elected to a position of high influence,” the former Massachusetts governor told Larry Kudlow on Tuesday. “He’s no longer associated with my campaign, as you can imagine.” When asked similar questions after the news broke, most of Craig’s Senate colleagues demurred, saying they wanted to see all the facts before commenting. They might have been acting out of loyalty or might have wanted to avoid the topic of bathroom sex altogether. But Romney showed no such reticence, linking Craig— who denies he did anything improper —to Bill Clinton and Mark Foley, and the larger culture of corruption in Washington. (Though Romney said he wanted to wait for the facts before calling for Craig’s resignation, he could only draw that parallel by assuming the worst).

As soon as the Craig story broke, the Romney campaign restricted access to Craig’s video endorsement on YouTube, in which the Idaho Senator praises Romney for his “very strong family values.” Candidates treat endorsers-gone-bad the way Soviet leaders handled purged rivals: erase them from photos and never speak of them again. John McCain did this when the Florida co-chairman of his campaign was also arrested for soliciting sex in a bathroom (if Democrats do this, too, they’re better at hiding it). So did Rudy Giuliani when his South Carolina chairman was indicted for distributing coke. * Romney’s spokesman said they yanked the video because they didn’t want Craig’s troubles to become a “distraction.” But when Romney later sermonized against Craig to make a sweeping judgment about Washington, he was hardly avoiding the subject.

This may make sense politically. Romney has been working hard to court social conservatives, including running a television spot in Iowa promising to clean up the culture of “violence, indolence, sex, and perversion.” His call for a stricter public morality shows members of the religious right—particularly any who might have qualms about his Mormon faith—that he shares their values.

By taking this wide stance, Romney continues to stake his position in the larger debate over the Republican Party’s identity. Some Republicans argue that the party should stop stressing family values so much. Lawmakers are human, and ultimately they won’t be able to live up to the standard that Romney has articulated. If the GOP candidates didn’t go on at such length about morality, their colleagues’ inevitable lapses would not look so glaringly hypocritical.

There’s also a case that the party needs to worry more about its libertarian wing.

Nick Gillespie, the editor of Reason, seized on the Craig affair to make a version of this argument in the Los Angeles Times, where he said that the GOP should get back to its fundamental principles as articulated by Barry Goldwater. Republicans should stop trying to tell people what to do in their bedrooms and bathrooms, either by stinging a Singing Senator or passing an amendment banning gay marriage. This drew criticism from the National Review’s John Hood, who argued that Gillespie had misappropriated the memory of Barry Goldwater. “I’m going to go out on a not-very-long limb here and suggest that if Sen. Goldwater was still around,” wrote Hood, “he’d be urging Craig to take personal responsibility for the disrepute he has brought upon himself and the Senate.”

We don’t have to guess about what Goldwater would do. During the 1964 presidential campaign, he faced almost precisely the same issue. In October, the Goldwater campaign learned that Walter Jenkins, LBJ’s closest aide, had been arrested on a “morals charge” in the YMCA bathroom. According to J. William Middendorf’s account of that campaign, A Glorious Disaster, Goldwater’s aides wanted to use the scandal against Johnson, who was well ahead in the polls. Jenkins was not only a security risk—open to blackmail— but long before he was arrested, there were allegations he’d used his influence with then-Vice President Johnson to get an Air Force general who had been busted on a morals charge reinstated. The Goldwater aides even tried out slogans: “Either way with LBJ.” Goldwater insisted that they make no use of it. The story never came up during the campaign.

This may say more about Goldwater’s personal decency than it does about his governing philosophy. Jenkins had served in Goldwater’s Air Force Reserve Unit, and as Goldwater later wrote, “It was a sad time for Jenkins’ wife and children, and I was not about to add to their private sorrow. Winning isn’t everything. Some things, like loyalty to friends or lasting principle, are more important.” Mitt, you’re no Barry Goldwater.

Correction, Aug. 30, 2007: This article originally and incorrectly said Giuliani’s South Carolina chairman was indicted for selling cocaine. He was merely indicted for distributing it. (Return to the corrected sentence.)