Left Turns: Sexual morality and voters: Where does pity stop and a 'no' vote begin?

Left Turns: Sexual morality and voters: Where does pity stop and a 'no' vote begin?

July 27th, 2013 in Opinion Times

The subject is sexual morality and politics: It's a hot topic, and not just because of New York mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner's apparent cybersex fetish and narcissism.

Unfortunately, Weiner is not alone with morality stumbles.

Think Eliot Spitzer, Mark Sanford, David Vitter, Bill Clinton, Scott DesJarlais.

What has happened that made serial philandering a forgivable offense in politics? Is it that many politicians are also, in the words the New York Times used to describe Weiner after his relapse, "serially evasive"?

In 1988, Gary Hart's political career ended with a photograph of him with Donna Rice on his lap. But today a politician can have affairs and be welcomed back into candidacies and even be re-elected.

In DesJarlais' case he could even recommend abortions to his mistress and still be re-elected by Tennessee's ultra-conservative voters.

These politicians don't mind legislating morality. They just don't want to act it out.

What does this say about morals and politics? And where will voters draw a line in the future? That is the question for this week's Left Turn guest writers.

- The Times

Elisa D. Parker

Vice-chairwoman of the Tennessee Democratic Party and a Realtor

"Well, there goes his political career!"

I haven't heard anyone say that in quite a while.

That phrase has been seemingly forced into retirement by the likes of former South Carolina governor and newly elected Congressman Mark Sanford, Louisiana Sen. David Vitter and Tennessee's very own Congressman Scott DesJarlais.

My father used to say, "You made your bed, now you have to sleep in it." So why is it that when politicians forget their self-control they just seem to look for new beds? (No pun intended.)

There is a basic fairness to my father's logic; the wrongdoer pays for his mistake.

Everyone can relate to making an error of judgment and seeking forgiveness. At our best, we learn from our own missteps and the mistakes of others.

The electorate, too, has pardoned the repeated moral missteps of politicians like DesJarlais (for now), but that forgiveness should not be an excuse for condoning blatant hypocrisy.

The U.S. Congress, as well as state legislatures throughout the country, are legislating morality more often than John Boehner reaches for tissue.

However, they don't even live their own lives to standards spelled out in legislation they are passing. It's as if they believe in a special set of rules for everyone, except themselves.

I am a "live and let live" kind of person, and I certainly would not want all of my life decisions under a microscope. Likewise, I would never vote to intrude in the personal decisions a woman makes with her doctor or to deny committed couples equal rights because of who they love.

Even in this era of 24/7 news cycles and endlessly talking heads, hypocrisy still rings louder.

When a politician lives his personal life in direct contrast to the values he espouses and in contrast to the rules he would have for your family, it's up to citizens to hold them accountable.

Author's note: And please forgive me for referring to only men in public office who have been accused of moral misconduct. I was unable to find an example involving a woman in office.

Perhaps the answer to moral politics lies in electing more women?

Joda Thongnopnua

Co-founder, The UNFoundation

Americans associate sex scandals with career-ending revelations -- Gary Hart comes to mind, with a sex scandal that saw his presidential aspirations end in 1988 with an embarrassing New Hampshire primary loss.

But right now, two politicians from New York who were recently embroiled in sex scandals of their own -- former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer and former congressman Anthony Weiner -- are (for now) staying competitive in the polls and are getting ready to seize their comeback spotlight.

So what gives? Sex scandals are supposed to be the death-knell of ambitious politicians. Turns out, that's not exactly true. New research on scandals in electoral politics by researcher Scott Basinger at the University of Houston finds that while sex scandals have an impact on election results, it's relatively modest. Specifically, sex scandals subtract 5.3 percent on average from an incumbent's vote if he's facing a politically adept challenger.

Of the 237 House of Representatives members facing scandals, a whopping 73 percent of them made it to the general election, and 81 percent of those who made it that far won their election. And this data is specific to the elections immediately after a scandal. These numbers begin to drastically decrease to statistically insignificant levels over time.

Bill Clinton and Mark Sanford have gone on to re-establish their credibility in American politics.

Should we as an electorate be outraged at our short memories and forgiving attitude? Perhaps. But I'd argue that the scandals that truly deserve outrage are the ones that include allegations of corruption or demonstrations of hypocrisy. Rep. Scott DesJarlais and Sen. Ward Crutchfield, to name two close to home.

There doesn't seem to be any indication that voters are going to be willing to punish sex scandal-tarred politicians in the future anymore than they already do. The Atlantic's Molly Ball recently opined that political comebacks after a sex scandal aren't the exception -- they're the rule. Based on what I'm seeing in New York, I'm tempted to agree.