The fire-and-brimstone Christian Right bible-thumper who gets busted buying crack cocaine from a male prostitute, or the "family values" conservative who turns out to be a serial philanderer. These are now stock characters out of GOP central casting.
But other than the rather tedious accumulation of examples of self-righteous Republicans who want us to do as they say and not as they do, is there something about Republicanism itself that produces these double standards? Is hypocrisy, in short, endemic to conservatism?
That is what Washington Post liberal E.J. Dionne wants to know. In his column this week, Dionne says that hypocrisy - "the gap between ideology and practice" -- has now reached a "crisis point" in American conservatism.
"This Republican presidential campaign is demonstrating conclusively that there is an unbridgeable divide between the philosophical commitments conservative candidates make before they are elected and what they will have to do when faced with the day-to-day demands of practical governance," writes Dionne. "Conservatives in power have never been -- and can never be -- as anti-government as they are in a campaign."
In an oft-quoted 2006 essay in Washington Monthly, "Why Conservatives Can't Govern," Boston College professor Alan Wolfe called contemporary conservatism "a walking contradiction" since conservatives were unable to shrink government but also unwilling to improve government and so ended up splitting the difference in ways that resulted in "not just bigger government, but more incompetent government."
The problem begins, says Wolfe, when conservatives promise to shrink the size and reach of the federal government but find once in office they are "under constant pressure from constituents to use government to improve their lives." And this, says Wolfe, "puts conservatives in the awkward position of managing government agencies whose missions -- indeed, whose very existence -- they believe to be illegitimate."
To Dionne, this pulling in opposite directions is what inevitably makes conservatives hypocrites.
Why, for example, are so many conservatives anti-government while spending long careers drawing paychecks from the taxpayers? asks Dionne. Why also do conservatives "bash government largesse while seeking as much of it as they can get for their constituents and friendly interest groups?"
Why do conservatives criticize entitlements and big government yet promise their older, conservative base they will "never, ever to cut their Medicare or Social Security?"
And what about defense? Why do Republicans support the free market yet refuse to consider any cuts at all in the bloated Military Industrial Complex that takes taxpayer dollars and transforms them into private profits.
The list goes on. The reason our political system is so "broken," says Dionne, is that conservatives are hypocrites who keep making "anti-government promises that they know perfectly well they are destined to break."
Dionne's criticisms are well taken. But he needs to dig deeper. It's not just small-government conservatives who are hypocrites about the size and cost of government they are willing to support. It's that conservatism itself, as a collection of ideas about organizing society, inevitably breeds hypocrisy.
Conservatives are sure to cry foul and will no doubt respond by producing a mountain of examples where liberals have behaved hypocritically. I am sure they can. But that's beside the point. The real point is that liberals care about hypocrisy and conservatives don't.
Here's why: liberals want to build a larger community by weaving together the different threads in our society into a fuller and more varied tapestry. This multi-culturalism and promotion of diversity, in fact, is what conservatives hate most about liberals since conservatives want to defend the community they already have by keeping others out, and by using politics to do it.
Hypocrisy matters to liberals because the only way to build a larger community is by first building trust. And the only way to build trust is by treating everyone equally -- by consistently and impartially applying the same universal principles to like individuals in like situations.
Hypocrisy is the unequal application of principle, producing an arbitrariness that eats like a cancer at the connective tissues of the ethnically, religiously, and demographically diverse communities liberal societies hope to create.
Hypocrisy matters to liberals like Rachel Maddow -- a lot -- as her long-time listeners well know. Nothing makes Maddow madder than when people say one thing and do another. The best parts of her show, in fact, are when she takes apart right wing hypocrites with prosecutorial precision, exposing Republicans who attack Obama's "job-killing" stimulus program on Fox News while taking credit for the jobs actually created in their local newspapers back home.
When Republicans accused Democrats of destroying the American Republic by using budget "reconciliation" to pass the Affordable Health Care Act, you could see the glee (and contempt) in Maddow's eyes as Republican duplicity is exposed while she quietly sits there as example after example of Republicans using reconciliation when they were in charge scrolls endlessly across the screen.
I watch Maddow's surgical dissection of Republicans and think they've got to be devastated. But then I listen afterward, dumbfounded, as their only takeaway from this embarrassing unmasking is that Maddow is a partisan hack.
But after all, why should a right wing conservative care if he's ridiculed for applying one set of standards to one group and a different set of standards to his? Why should he care if he is called a hypocrite considering that his ultimate objective is to guarantee the supremacy of white, Christian, affluent males?
Or take a charlatan preacher like Franklin Graham, whose sole objective isn't saving souls but electing other Republicans. Why should Graham care if his duplicity is called out on national TV when he insists it's impossible for him to vouch for the authenticity of President Obama's Christian devotion while Graham eagerly does just that for Rick Santorum or even the three-timing Newt Gingrich?
Man is moral but society is not, the liberal theologian Reinhold Niebuhr reminds us. Telling the truth and being true to our stated principles may be sovereign in our personal lives but can easily give way to the demands of our political commitments, as right wing conservatives know all too well.
Hypocrisy matters to liberals because the principles of equality and fair-dealing upon which our liberal way of life depends matter to liberals -- and when those principles are impartially applied bridge our differences to create a society greater than the sum of its parts.
Right wing conservatives do not share this vision of the Great Society and so are untroubled by hypocrisy because their first and only commitment is to their group.
We are a nation not of blood and soil but of ideas, President George W. Bush told us in his second inaugural. Liberals accept that belief implicitly. Right wing conservatives do not. To this new generation of radical conservatives, societies are still based on soil and blood. With the emphasis on blood.