With Georgia Republicans rallying around Herschel Walker – with evangelical Christians flocking to his “prayer luncheon” this week, with ex-House Speaker Newt Gingrich on TV hailing the Senate hopeful’s purported “deep commitment to Christ” – it’s clear the guy could abort a fetus in the middle of Fifth Avenue and never lose a right-wing vote.
That might seem astounding, given that Herschel “pro-life without exceptions” Walker, long unmasked as a serial liar, has now been outed for financing a girlfriend’s abortion (writing a check, no less). But we do need to remember that conservative tribalism and rank hypocrisy are not new phenomenon. To best understand the GOP’s latest circling of the wagons, turn back the clock to 2014 and consider the case of Congressman Scott DesJarlais.
DesJarlais, a Tennessean swept into the House in the 2010 tea party wave, is still in office today. But he seemed doomed back in 2014. Surely there was no way that Republican voters would want to reward a self-described “family values conservative” who preached traditional values (“pro-marriage and proud of it”) as well as anti-abortion zealotry (“all life should be cherished and protected”) – while, in private, engaging in multiple extramarital affairs and encouraging several women to have abortions.
A licensed physician, DesJarlais was reprimanded and fined by the Tennessee Board of Medical Examiners in May 2013 for engaging in sexual relationships with two of his patients. At the time of those affairs, “pro-marriage” DesJarlais was married to his first wife.
Actually, there were more than two affairs. According to divorce court transcripts, released after he won re-election in 2012, there were as many as eight affairs (patients, co-workers, a drug representative). He also encouraged one of his lovers to have an abortion (according to the transcript, he scolded her for procastinating: “You told me you’d have an abortion, and now we’re getting too far along without one”), and he brandished a gun to intimidate his first wife during an argument. Oh, and I almost forgot: He goaded his first wife into having two abortions.
Still with me? There was more.
Under oath during his divorce proceedings, DesJarlais explained his reason for seeking the second abortion: “Things were not going well between us.” In other words, there should be no exceptions for rape, incest, or the endangered life of the mother. But, for the exclusive benefit of himself, he crafted a Things Not Going Well in the Relationship loophole.
All this baggage should’ve been a deal-breaker at the ballot box, right? As if.
He was even challenged that summer in a Republican primary – his opponent sent out mailers: “Abortions. Affairs. Abuse of Power. We can’t trust DesJarlais to Fight for Our Values” – but it didn’t matter. DeJarlais still won the primary. Then, in November, he trounced his Democratic foe by 23 percentage points.
By now you’ve probably guessed why the guy survived: (1) Tennessee conservatives hated President Obama, and DesJarlais had dutifully voted against everything Obama wanted. (2) As one voter, clearly speaking for many, told a Tennessee newspaper, “We’re Christian. If you can’t forgive...”
Bingo! The voters gifted him a Get Out of Hades Free Card. Here’s the way it works: When a conservative sins egregiously, violating everything he preaches in public, he gets Christian forgiveness; but when (for instance) Bill Clinton sinned, it was a “character issue” and a spur for impeachment.
The DeJarlais Rule lives on. No wonder Herschel Walker is getting a pass. (Fellow philanderer Newt Gingrich has offered an additional defense: “He had a lot of concussions coming out of football.”) But Sarah Longwell, a lifelong and still sane Republican activist, has tweeted the bottom line:
“I’m not saying Herschel Walker can’t still win. I’m just saying that if he does win, it means that morality, truth, and decency have ceased to be relevant to GOP voters. And there is no limit to what the broader Republican Party will tolerate. But I guess we knew that already.”
Dick Polman, a veteran national political columnist based in Philadelphia and a Writer in Residence at the University of Pennsylvania, writes at DickPolman.net. Email him at email@example.com