Sex scandals: Are we over them?

Matt K. Lewis | Senior Contributor

Looking at the Sanford-Weiner-Spitzer trend of scandal-tainted politicians making (or attempting to make) political comebacks, the Atlantic’s Molly Ball argues these comebacks “aren’t the exception. They’re the rule.”

She cites historic examples, ranging from Grover Cleveland to Ted Kennedy — and then more modern examples like Louisiana Sen. David Vitter (Ball does note that sex scandals sometimes hurt some politicians, such as Gary Hart.) And she cites a researcher who discovered that “73 percent of disgraced incumbents made it to their next general election, and of those, 81 percent won.”

Ball ultimately concludes, “If Spitzer and Weiner manage to join Sanford in getting elected post-sex scandal, they won’t be signaling a bold new trend. They’ll be doing what politicians have always done: getting in trouble and then getting elected anyway.”

A couple thoughts on this: First, we should make a distinction between being re-elected and being elevated to a higher office. In the case of Gary Hart, he was not merely seeking re-election — he was seeking to be promoted to the most powerful position in the world. Likewise, Ted Kennedy remained in the Senate, but his White House bid (for various reasons) floundered. In any event, it seems reasonable that the public might be willing to return someone to a previous position, while also rejecting the notion of promoting them.

This may be a lesson modern pols have learned. After being forced from office, Sanford, in a sense, took a step backward — returning to his old House seat. And Spitzer, also a former governor, is likewise attempting a sort of strategic retreat by seeking to become New York City comptroller (no doubt, on his way to something bigger.)

But putting that distinction aside, I agree that Hart was the anomaly. And I think there is an interesting reason for this. His scandal occurred after the time when the press would cover up such scandals (see JFK), but before the time when our culture greeted such scandals with a collective yawn. (Okay, that’s not quite correct. We do love to talk about the salacious details of these incidents, but we no longer attribute such peccadilloes to a deficiency of character that constitutes disqualifying one for office.)

The interesting thing is that, despite the long and proud tradition of politicians recovering from scandals, there is a sort of accretion happening here. The back-to-back-to-back Sanford-Weiner-Spitzer stories constitute a sort of perverse drumbeat, creating a sort of permission structure for past (and would-be offenders). Fear of losing a future election will no longer be a deterrent.

Hey ladies!

Note: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that Spitzer was running for NY state (not NYC) comptroller. 

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