Can Dr. James Dobson provide absolution? The conservative radio host is not an ordained minister, but this week his booth became a confessional. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich went on his nationally syndicated program and spoke at length about past infidelity and his two divorces. Though Gingrich has said he will wait to decide if he will run for president, the move looked like an attempt to inoculate himself from charges of immorality and make his pitch to social conservatives who like his policy positions but may take issue with his personal history.
All of the GOP front-runners have problems with the party's most powerful constituency and each seems to be picking a different way to overcome them. John McCain, who once railed against people like James Dobson as "agents of intolerance," is trying a fitful outreach. He emphasizes that he wants to overturn Roe v. Wade, which social conservatives like—but he also voted against the federal gay marriage amendment, which they don't like. (McCain thinks it's a state issue.) Mitt Romney, who once held more liberal positions on abortion and gay rights, is presenting himself as a zealous convert, who only happens to be a Mormon. At a recent meeting of conservatives, Romney portrayed himself as a cultural warrior on issues from gay marriage to bilingual education. For good measure, he called his wife on stage to speak for an uncomfortable few minutes. The message was clear: He has had one—just one—long and fruitful marriage to the same one woman. Only one woman. Rudy Giuliani has been married three times, is estranged from his children, and holds the wrong positions on guns, gays, and abortion. For the moment his strategy seems largely to be to ignore those conflicts.
Gingrich, who has also been married three times, has yet a different gambit. He is asking for forgiveness for the sin of extramarital fornication. Bill Clinton famously admitted "causing pain in my marriage" in 1992 on 60 Minutes as a way of trying to get past rumors of his infidelity. Gingrich went further. In response to Dobson's questions about his philandering, he admitted "mistakes" in his past, including an affair he was having even as he led the impeachment charge against President Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky affair. "The honest answer is 'yes,' " Gingrich said, in response to questioning from Dobson. "There are times that I have fallen short of my own standards. There's certainly times when I've fallen short of God's standards."
Gingrich argued that he wasn't a hypocrite for pushing for Clinton's impeachment while having an affair. "Perjury is at the very heart of our legal system," he said of the 1998 House proceedings. "I [had] no choice except to move forward and say that you cannot accept ... perjury in your highest officials." (This is apparently not true for conservatives railing against Scooter Libby's conviction for perjury and obstruction of justice.)
If Gingrich runs, his confession will provide an interesting test of the social-conservative temperament. Their evangelical faith says that if Gingrich is truly repentant, he can be redeemed by a loving and forgiving God. Dobson pressed this issue: "When I heard you talk about this dark side of your life … you didn't mention repentance. Do you understand that word repentance?" Gingrich quickly answered that he turned "to God to receive forgiveness and to receive mercy."
If it's good enough for Him, it should be good enough for them? Somehow, it hasn't always worked that way, particularly for Dobson. In the middle of the heated South Carolina Republican primary battle between George Bush and John McCain in 2000, Dobson issued a personal press release attacking McCain: "The senator is being touted by the media as a man of principle, yet he was involved with other women while married to his first wife." McCain had long admitted an affair and confessed his guilt and regret, but that wasn't good enough for Dobson. The fact of the affair alone was enough to disqualify him.
McCain and Giuliani probably aren't going to win support from moral judges like Dobson, which means the competition for their favor may come down to a contest between Gingrich and Romney. In that case, it will be a face-off between a candidate whose personal behavior is solid but whose policy positions are wobbly, and one who has a spotty past but has been faithful on policy issues like appointing conservative judges.
By the end of the Gingrich interview, Dobson seemed prepared to wash away the sins of the former speaker. "Many of the concepts and ideas that you have expressed … are things that I agree with. I think it's really important and will be for many of our listeners to know your responses to that point of disappointment back there some place." Newt's sins were thereby absolved, but not forgotten.