It’s a shame that Idaho Sen. Larry Craig didn’t draw on his own political principles to defend his right to engage in consensual sex in toilet stalls with men. Or with women, for that matter: The 62-year-old Republican is the married father of three children. (As a strong supporter of property rights, he could have added that the owners of said facilities should decide what behavior is allowed in their powder rooms.) 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 on its citizens.
At first flush, the news that the senator pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of disorderly conduct in a Minnesota airport men’s room is not simply embarrassing but humiliating—especially for the people of the Gem State, who returned him to office for the third time in 2002 with 65 percent 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. Craig compounded his poor judgment by trying to invoke senatorial privilege. Post-arrest, he handed the police officer his U.S. Senate business card and blustered, “What do you think of that?” Craig paid almost $600 in fines and fees and got a year’s probation.
It’s easy—and fun—to savor the disjuncture between Craig’s personal and public behavior. A hard-core 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’s nothing short of pathetic that Craig would deny the possibility of matrimony to gays even as he seeks sex from them.
Beyond making air travel even less appealing, the Craig scandal gives the Republican Party, battered into minority status after years of domestic and foreign overreach, a golden opportunity to recover its attractive minimal-government heritage.
At least since the opening of President Clinton’s impeachment trial in 1998, when House Speaker–designate Bob Livingston (R-La.) announced his resignation after his adultery and phone sex proclivities came to (red) light, the GOP has shot itself in the foot repeatedly in the regulation of sexual activity. Last year’s exposure of Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.), who bombarded teenage male congress-ional pages with racy instant messages even as he authored legislation aimed at online predators, was a key factor in the party’s midterm election losses.
While it remains to be seen if Craig’s scandal, or the recent revelation that Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) was a regular at a D.C. escort service, 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. A longtime proponent of reproductive rights, Goldwater was also 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 due to their own misbehavior, the Republicans have been routed in 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.