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Death of the Conservative Moral Outrage

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Where's the Outrage Now?

By E. J. Dionne

Friday, October 10, 2003; Page A27

In the California recall, the right wing's moralistic masters of attack choked on their own partisanship. These are the people who praised the "courage" of anyone who reported anything embarrassing about the sex life of a certain former president. Then they painted all who did not respond with indignation as "apologists" complicit in America's moral decline and the "death of outrage."

Guess who the apologists were this time? All of a sudden it was Arnold Schwarzenegger being accused of groping, fondling and humiliating women. Oh, yes, there was outrage on the right. But it was directed at the Los Angeles Times for investigating and reporting on the charges. The same folks who had insisted that our leaders should be moral exemplars were suddenly aghast when a news organization explored the "character" of, well, er, a Republican. Fox's Bill O'Reilly on Schwarzenegger: "The Los Angeles Times is out to get him, to destroy him. . . . Most guys have done dopey things with women." Bill O'Reilly on Clinton during impeachment: "The American people have a right to know everything there is to know about President Clinton's behavior."

Schwarzenegger was very shrewd about the whole business. Unlike Bill Clinton -- whose impeachment, by the way, he had criticized -- Schwarzenegger did not deny the undeniable. But he picked up tricks from the master, going after the whole left-wing conspiracy. And he used the moralists' weapon of choice, talk radio, to drive his attacks home. His opponents were "throwing everything at me plus the kitchen sink," Schwarzenegger told talk host Sean Hannity. He accused Davis of sending out "surrogate women" to come up with new accusers.

Shouldn't this election have been an easy call for the moralists? Here you had dull, stolid, old-values Gray Davis, who even went to Mass on Election Day. He was opposed by one of those permissive Hollywood stars against whom the right wing fulminates for daring to express political opinions. But, hey, Arnold is no Susan Sarandon. His views -- on taxes, big government and business regulation, if not on abortion and gay rights -- were good enough for the purposes of this recall. Who cares about a little hanky-panky when a Democratic governor can be thrown out of office?

You get the sneaking feeling that the right may come to regret this deal with The Terminator. Yes, his victory was a triumph over incompetent Democrats who should never have allowed things to come to this. The World Series of Recrimination is a coming Democratic attraction. But Schwarzenegger's campaign was a rebuke to partisans of the Republican right, and not only because they had to eat tens of thousands of their own words about sex and morality. They were also forced to buy into a political strategy they had rejected in the past.

A few months after Gray Davis won his first election as governor in 1998, a group of political strategists gathered at the University of California's Institute for Governmental Studies to dissect the campaign. Davis, remember, won in a year when Republicans made attacking Clinton one of their national themes. Leslie Goodman, one of the GOP's shrewdest California strategists, said her party had "created the sense that the Republican Party was the judgmental party or the judging party, and the Democrats were the helping party." She went on: "The era of preacher politics is over. People don't want ideologues wagging fingers in their faces."

Say what you will about Arnold: He's not judgmental. He wagged fingers only at Gray Davis and the L.A. Times. And as Goodman would have predicted, he held on to conservatives while making deep inroads into the old Democratic coalition. Exit polling showed that Schwarzenegger won 41 percent of the vote from those who favor legal abortion, 37 percent from union members, 31 percent from Hispanics, 20 percent from self-described liberals and 18 percent from Democrats.

As for the Times, it was correct to run its groping story before the election, but far better had it been published a week or two earlier. Voters have made clear their sensible preference that the sex lives of politicians be treated as private matters unless an overwhelming case is made for going public. In this case, Californians were not given time to decide whether this report was more about sex or more about something closer to battery. Even with additional time, an electorate desperate for change might still have made the same choice it did on Tuesday. But by being able to dismiss the charges as a last-minute hit, Schwarzenegger evaded their public implications.

Conservatives might reasonably argue that Clinton's success in beating impeachment and Arnold's election both represent the triumph of the Permissive Society. But this week, conservatives themselves were complicit in its victory. Mark Oct. 7, 2003, as the day conservatives' moral outrage died.

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© 2003 The Washington Post Company

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