Politics & Policy

“Hypocrisy!” He Cried.

An examination of a favorite charge.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece appears in the June 20th, 2005, issue of National Review.

[I]t is galling to Democrats–48 percent of us who did not support the president–it is galling to be lectured to about moral values by folks who have their own problems. Hypocrisy is a value that I think has been embraced by the Republican party. We get lectured by people all day long about moral values by people who have their own moral shortcomings. I don’t think we ought to give a whole lot of lectures to people–I think the Bible says something to the effect that, Be careful when you talk about the shortcomings of somebody else when you haven’t removed the mote from your own eye. And I don’t think we ought to be lectured to by Republicans who have got all these problems themselves. . . . Everybody has ethical shortcomings. We ought not to lecture each other about our ethical shortcomings. . . . I will use whatever position I have in order to root out hypocrisy.

Howard Dean, Meet the Press, May 22

Dean, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, made so many provocative comments during his recent interview with Tim Russert that his comments about Republican hypocrisy attracted relatively little notice. Republicans were keen to point out that Dean had confused Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. (Isn’t that what Democrats accuse President Bush of doing?) Newspapers, to the extent they mentioned the above exchange at all, noted only that Dean, having been questioned by Russert about the propriety of “mimicking a drug-snorting Rush Limbaugh,” had defended himself. That was the context in which Dean delivered the above soliloquy.

Now it would be easy to criticize these comments–and it would not be wrong. Immediately following his denunciation of Republicans for “lecturing” about “moral values,” Dean explained that Democrats had moral values, too: “Our moral values, in contradiction to the Republicans’, is we don’t think kids ought to go to bed hungry at night. Our moral values say that people who work hard all their lives ought be able to retire with dignity.” And on it went: There was Dean, lecturing about moral values, and in extravagant terms.

You could call that hypocritical, since Dean was failing to live up to a moral norm that he had (one minute before) made a big point of supporting, the norm that we should not lecture one another. But this temptation we should resist: The word “hypocrisy” is thrown around too easily in American political life. The search for hypocrisy in politics is generally misconceived, and in ways that tend to hurt conservatives more than liberals. . . .

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Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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