Ross Douthat: Intellectual Liliputian or Moral Midget? You Decide.

Nicolas Beaudrot over at Cogitamus kicked off the day by asking what “more explicitly family-values-oriented conservatives like Ross Douthat” might think of the story of the beginning of John McCain’s current marriage. For those not up on the scandalmongery goodness, McCain was actually somewhat of a trailblazer in the ‘Republicans that treat their ill wives like shit, then cheat on them while married, then leave them to marry someone much younger’ routine, which was of course perfected by that moral exemplar, Newt Gingrich, who cheated on his hospital-bedridden cancer-stricken wife, while prosecuting Bill Clinton for the crime of adultery in the House of Representatives! Oh the irony, it burns!

Anyhow, McCain’s wife suffered severe injuries in a car accident, after which he began several not-so-private affairs, before beginning an affair with a much younger, much richer heiress, who he eventually married, after divorcing his original wife.

Ross’ first response left something to be desired, to say the least. It basically boiled down to “well, his first wife was too decent to air her dirty laundry in public, so therefore it couldn’t have been that bad, and he should be forgiven for it.”

After being further called out by Beaudrot and Yglesias, Ross attempted to restate his argument. In case you couldn’t tell from the title of this post, I find his position to be odious in the extreme. Essentially, it boils down to the fact that, since he once wrote a post saying that convicted criminal Senator David Vitter ought to resign in the wake of being found guilty of solicitation, he now would feel free to vote for Vitter for President of the United States, in the unlikely event that the race boiled down to Vitter vs. Obama.

However, if David Vitter – having conspicuously failed to resign – were to face off in a Presidential race against Barack Obama, I would be inclined to hold my nose and vote for Vitter. I don’t think there’s necessarily a contradiction here, any more than I think there would be a contradiction for a culturally-conservative Democrat to simultaneously believe that Bill Clinton ought to have resigned over the Lewinsky affair while declining to regret having voted for Clinton over Bob Dole in ’96.

For someone who claims to hold to a moral code which doesn’t allow for moral relativism, Ross sure does show a serious lack of conviction of conscience here. I believe that another way of saying what he says here is that he believed the offenses Vitter committed were sufficient to render him unqualified to continue serving as Senator from the state of Louisiana. However, those selfsame crimes would not render him, in Ross’ highly moral worldview, unqualified to hold the office of Most Powerful Man In The Free World, if the alternative was someone whose conduct was unimpeachable, but who held views different from those Ross hews to.

I don’t even necessarily disagree with Ross. I don’t get too caught up on politicians’ moral qualities, because I’m more interested in the results they get than the motives behind them. If a politician wants to pass great laws because he thinks it will result in his being enshrined on Mount Rushmore someday, more power to him. As Mickey Kaus points out endlessly, just because welfare reform was supported by a bunch of racists, doesn’t automatically make it wrong. Or, as ‘I can haz nepotistic book contrakt’ Jonah Goldberg could stand to learn, just because the Nazis ate organic food, doesn’t make Whole Foods-shopping liberals their (im)moral equivalent.

However, Ross claims to believe that a politician’s moral persona is very important. I understand why people feel that way, although I tend to disagree on the specifics. But now, it turns out that politicians’ moral persona is ‘very important’, in the sense of ‘less important than any or all of their policy positions.’ That’s a completely defensible view to hold (obviously I think so, since I hold it.) But, for Pete’s sake, Ross, defend the damn position you actually hold, rather than defending the one you wish you held, but then claim that it’s impossible to, since the world simply doesn’t possess your entirely-pure moral clarity.


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