A number of commentators have recently been marveling over the way New York's very angry tea party candidate for governor, Carl Paladino, has been able to walk away from scandals and outrageous behavior that would have left any mortal candidate for public office scattered in unrecognizable little bits across a several-block-wide area.
But in fact conservative politicians have long mastered the art of how to get a pass on immoral conduct. One approach is to package it as proof of their regular-guyness. Paladino's own campaign manager offered a fine specimen of this in explaining why he failed to pay $53,000 in taxes and had an IRS lien filed against him: "Most people I know have had problems paying their taxes. I am just like everyone else. . . . You introduce me to somebody who is pristine and clean. I would be happy to meet them. But I have never met anybody like that."
(Of course this also invites comparisons to the Monty Python bit where Graham Chapman asserts, "I mean, how many of us can honestly say that at one time or another he hasn't set fire to some great public building. I know I have." And, for the record, the IRS estimates that voluntary tax compliance is 84 percent.*)
But the other more important part of this art, long understood by preachers caught with their hands in the till or their pants around their ankles, is the recognition that sanctimony always trumps facts. In one sense this is the big lie, the same way Republicans keep repeating the mantra that they are the party of fiscal responsibility, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.**
But I think it's actually more subtle than that and goes deep into human cognition, the sociology of tribalism, and the peculiar role of repentance in evangelical Christianity. Thus when liberals are caught using drugs or engaging in unmarried sex, this is seen as confirmation of an immoral and permissive ideology; when conservatives are caught doing the same or worse (think of Rush Limbaugh's drug arrests, David Vitter's visits to the "DC madam," Sarah Palin's pregnant unwed teenage daughter) it is seen as a human foible to be forgiven, since their hearts are obviously in the right place. And that indeed explains why what strikes the rest of us as breathtaking hypocrisy — Limbaugh's rabid insistence on jail terms for drug users, for example, or various rent-boy-employing evangelical preachers' hellfire and brimstone condemnations of homosexuality — is to their followers only further affirmation that they are true believers who have merely sinned and repented.
* See p.8 of this IRS study (pdf), "Reducing the Federal Tax Gap"
** I was still agog enough at the claims made in the GOPs "Pledge to America" that I went and retrieved all the recent year-by-year data on Federal spending, provided here for your continuing hypocrisy-viewing pleasure:
Federal spending as a percentage of GDP