THERE WAS TRENT LOTT on one side, and now Rick Santorum on the other. Like bookends, they seem to frame the war with Iraq--each subject to an attack in which an offhand comment is taken by opponents for a steed and ridden to death with spurs. Some commentators (and many, many politicians) hoped that in the high seriousness of a nation at war this trend in public discourse would wither away. But it clearly hasn't. Welcome home, boys. Politics is back.

There remains, of course, the question of whether the attacks on Santorum are going to succeed in driving him from his leadership position in the Senate, as they rightly did succeed with Lott. In Santorum's case, that would be undeserved.

In the course of an interview with an Associated Press reporter, the topic of a current Supreme Court case, Lawrence v. Texas, came up, and Santorum said, "If the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery. You have the right to anything."

On its face, this seems a commonplace argument in which a not-particularly important law is defended because down the slippery slope from it lie much worse things. The argument may be wrong, or it may be right, but it isn't outrageous or unusual. In fact, Santorum's phrasing is nearly a direct quotation from the majority decision in the 1986 Bowers v. Hardwick case, in which Justice Byron White wrote what is still American law: "It would be difficult, except by fiat, to limit the claimed right to homosexual conduct while leaving exposed to prosecution adultery, incest, and other sexual crimes even though they are committed in the home. We are unwilling to start down that road."

Nonetheless, within moments of his interview, the attack on Santorum as an anti-homosexual bigot was roaring--pushed primarily by the editorial page of the New York Times and kept bubbling by a steady stream of comments from homosexual and libertarian bloggers. A response from Santorum's office created the occasion for another round of excoriation. The AP's release of the full transcript of the interview was yet another. Jay Leno's jokes about the brouhaha on the "Tonight Show" were still another.

To read the whole transcript is to wonder what Santorum thought he was doing. Did the number-three Republican in the Senate really need to allow an AP reporter to lead him off into contemplations of the relative morality of bestiality, incest, and adultery? He lacks the training as a natural-law theorist to carry it off--and he's supposed to have the training as a politician to know better than to try. The lesson of Trent Lott ought to be clear in every politician's mind: You can't get away with rambling any more, either in good ol' boy comments about a retiring colleague or in half-baked philosophical and legal meanderings about a pending Supreme Court case. And the reason is that a bit of such rambling is going to be lifted up as proof of what the lifters-up always believed they knew--that Southern Republicans are racists, for example, or that Catholic Republicans hate homosexuals.

As it happens, Santorum also said during his interview, "I have no problem with homosexuality. I have a problem with homosexual acts." And that, too, is defensible--both as a version of the familiar Christian saying, "hate the sin and lover the sinner," and as a truncated and somewhat naive version of the "theology of the body" that John Paul II has long been expounding. At the root of all this is an argument about whether homosexuality is something people do, like adultery and masturbation, or something that people are, like members of a race or ethnic group.

Activists demanding the mainstreaming of homosexuality tend to run back and forth between these views, depending on the political exigencies. Sometimes the libertarian distaste for laws concerning "what happens in the bedroom between consenting adults" seems to have purchase. Sometimes the analogy with Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil-rights movement seems the better way to go. Holding up examples of hermaphrodites and transsexuals, theorists of "queer studies" typically demand that we eliminate all references to men and women and recognize the infinite gradations of gender. In strict logic, this ought to force them to abandon the civil-rights analogy, but somehow it never does.

Anyway, it hardly matters now what Santorum actually said. He's become the poster boy for the people who just know that Republicans--however slick they may sometimes seem--are deep down in their hearts either bigots (in the civil-rights model) or peering, prying church ladies (in the libertarian model). Or, ideally, both.

There's a test in whether Santorum survives all this. Lott had to go, both because he lost the support of his party and because when the issue is racial segregation, Americans don't accept language that does anything but denounce it. Has homosexuality reached this point?

Earlier this month, the secretary of education, Roderick Paige, survived several days of newspaper and activist denunciations about an interview in which he said, "All things being equal, I would prefer to have a child in a school that has a strong appreciation for the values of the Christian community"--a comment that was widely interpreted as an attack on the public schools he leads as head of the Department of Education. The New York Times spent months, last year and this, on a campaign to rally America against holding the Master's tournament at the supposedly sexist Augusta National Golf Course--and the only result was widespread mocking of the newspaper.

These examples seem to reinforce the lesson of Trent Lott. The left in general, and the New York Times in particular, cannot bring someone down unaided any longer. Conservatives have to join in. In Santorum's case, some have joined in. The libertarians, who have generally supported President Bush, have seized upon Santorum's comments to push their own version of social liberalism. On Fox television, Bill O'Reilly declared, "America does not need a sex police. It's a waste of time and resources."

Still, the vast majority of ordinary conservatives have refused to heed the call to make war against Santorum as they made war on Lott, and he looks likely to survive as a result. Indeed, if the Supreme Court refuses to take an activist line, using Lawrence v. Texas to overturn Bowers v. Hardwick, Santorum's line will be vindicated to some degree. Meanwhile, he can usefully recall that conservatives are great defenders of the division of labor--and start referring constitutional law questions to others.

J. Bottum is Books and Arts editor at The Weekly Standard.

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