Imagine being a time traveler from the 1990s and gazing at this week's political debates. You would be surprised to find liberals criticizing Bill Clinton, even saying he should have resigned the presidency over his sexual misdeeds, along with leftists bashing Sen. Al Franken (accused, with photographic evidence, of grotesque groping), while social conservatives could be found defending or excusing the growing litany of allegations against Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore.
It wasn't always this way. Twenty years ago, liberals were generally predisposed to disbelieve women accusing Clinton of nonconsensual sexual misconduct while insisting that his affairs, even with a White House intern, were not a proper object of public concern. What really mattered, they frequently argued, was that Clinton took the right policy positions, especially on issues of importance to women.
"I would be happy to give him a blowjob just to thank him for keeping abortion legal," journalist Nina Burleigh memorably remarked. "I think American women should be lining up with their presidential kneepads on to show their gratitude for keeping the theocracy off our backs."
Almost a decade later, Burleigh defended the comment as necessary to "tweak the white, middle-aged beltway gang taking Clinton to task for sexual harassment" and decried the "insidious use of sexual harassment laws to bring down a president for his pro-female politics."
"If President Clinton were as vital to preserving freedom of speech as he is to preserving reproductive freedom, would journalists be condemned as 'inconsistent' for refusing to suggest he resign?" asked feminist icon Gloria Steinhem in a 1998 New York Times op-ed. "Forget it."
Steinhem even compared Clinton's alleged harassment of women to a president who supported liberal environmental policies but was guilty of personal "insensitivity toward environmentalists."
This week, The Atlantic's Caitlin Flanagan contrasted the rapid downfall of powerful men behaving badly to Clinton becoming an elder statesmen within the Democratic Party. "Clinton was not left to the swift and pitiless justice that today's accused men have experienced," she wrote. "Rather, he was rescued by a surprising force: machine feminism. The movement had by then ossified into a partisan operation, and it was willing — eager — to let this friend of the sisterhood enjoy a little droit de seigneur."
As liberals belatedly second-guess all this in pieces like Flanagan's, many social conservatives — who once argued that moral character is king — have repeated the feminists' 1990s mistakes in their defense of Moore and, to a lesser extent, President Trump.
Relatively few well-known conservatives are comparing Moore to Joseph, husband of Mary, or Jesus Christ (though you can find some of this on Twitter, which proved to be the canary in the coalmine during the 2016 campaign). But plenty are rejecting out of hand the accusations against Moore because he holds the right views and plays for the right team.
"Socialist Democrat Doug Jones will vote wrong," said Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.). "Roy Moore will vote right. Hence, I will vote for Roy Moore."
The Moore campaign itself has used this logic. "If you are a liberal and hate Judge Moore, apparently he groped you," read a statement about a fresh set of charges. "If you are a conservative and love Judge Moore, you know these allegations are a political farce."
Also at work is a steadfast refusal to believe anything that comes from the pages of a media outlet with a real or perceived liberal bias. Here too conservatives are taking a page from liberal defenders of Clinton. In her New York Times column explaining why she now believed Clinton rape accuser Juanita Broaddrick, Michelle Goldberg cited the need to be "wary of allegations that bubble up from the right-wing press" as a reason it took so long to take these allegations seriously.
In some respects, a focus on votes and issues represents the maturation of social conservatism. Their efforts to "remoralize" American culture have plainly failed and represent a failure to understand what politics can really accomplish. Defending religious liberty and protecting innocent human life remain worthwhile political pursuits.
But religious conservatives in particular have concerns that reach beyond this world. When they endorse or engage in behavior injurious to faith, the consequences may be eternal. Electoral victories and defeats are temporary.
Blind partisanship and a stubborn refusal to follow facts where they lead are corrosive of truth and lead to cruelty to people who don't fit neatly within our preconceived notions. And social conservatives in particular are likely to regret entirely ceding standards of sexual morality to feminists, with whom they still have important disagreements.
The comparison between 1990s liberals and today's conservatives can be overdone. The fact is that many conservatives are condemning Moore right at the moment it could cost them a Senate seat while a number of liberals entertained second thoughts about the 42nd president only after the Clintons were of no more use to them.
Nearly every important Democrat in Washington closed ranks behind Bill Clinton. National Republicans — with the glaring exception of the president — have mostly rejected Moore to a degree not seen since the party disavowed the racist David Duke's Louisiana gubernatorial bid 26 years ago.
Nevertheless, too many conservatives are setting themselves up for the kind of regret decades from now that some Clinton-era liberals feel today — wishing they could go back in time and do the right thing when it counted.