Are we French now? Political sex scandals aren’t career killers anymore

NEW YORK, NY - JULY 08:  Former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer is mobbed by reporters while attempting to collect signatures to run for comptroller of New York...
NEW YORK, NY - JULY 08: Former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer is mobbed by reporters while attempting to collect signatures to run for comptroller of New York...
Andrew Burton

Anthony Weiner center, marches in the 24th Annual Laurelton Memorial Day Parade on Monday, May 27, 2013 in Queens, New York. (AP Photo/ Donald Traill)Eliot Spitzer was caught cavorting with prostitutes. It cost him the New York governorship, and possibly a chance to be president one day. In the schadenfraude-filled day after the Spitzer story broke in 2008, it seemed the disgraced Democrat could never bounce back. And yet, five years later, with a stable of Slate columns and a failed CNN talk show behind him, Spitzer seems ready to win the forgiveness of New York City voters. Just days after announcing he was running for city comptroller, a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll shows Spitzer with a nine-point lead over popular Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer.

Meanwhile, former Democratic Congressman Anthony Weiner of New York–who called it quits two years ago after tweeting lewd photos of himself to strangers, then repeatedly lying about it on national television–is also at or near the top of polls to become the Big Apple’s next mayor. And then there’s Mark Sanford, the former governor of South Carolina, who resigned as chairman of the Republic Governor’s Association following revelations of an extramarital affair with Argentine mistress Maria Belen Chapur. Now Sanford, once a national punchline, has returned to Congress, where he has been seen hitting the town with Chapur—now his fiancé—by his side.

America’s sudden forgiveness of such sexual transgressions is enough to make the country feel almost… French.

Have Americans become more willing to forgive and forget? Since the days of Bill Clinton’s impeachment, when Republicans spent years hammering the president for engaging in oral sex with a White House intern, we’ve seen our elected leaders engage in offenses that are arguably far worse. (Spitzer, after all, broke the law.) And yet, voters seem quick to forgive. It seems almost quaint to imagine 1988, when Gary Hart’s presidential bid was derailed by reports of an extramarital affair.

“A good sex scandal isn’t what it used to be, that’s for sure,” said former Republican National Chairman Michael Steele on Hardball earlier this week. “Politicians today have figured out how to apologize, they’ve figured out how to go for that sort-of kumbaya, ‘gee I’m sorry, won’t you give me another try’ kind of approach.” He contrasted that tactic to the defiant stances employed by Hart and Clinton.

These days, Steele said, voters mostly care about their leaders’ professional skills, not their personal indiscretions. There’s a sense that “if you’ve got the trains running, what you do in the bedroom and what you do on your time is your business.”

Of course, not all sex scandals are created equal. Clinton never needed to run again after his sex scandal, avoiding the ultimate test at the ballot box. Spitzer, once a fearsome and high-minded attorney general, was caught breaking the law. Weiner, who loved to berate Republicans on the House floor, was revealed–in all senses of the word–to have put himself in compromising positions. (In some sense, the criticism of both Spitzer and Weiner was as much about their hypocrisy as their sexual behavior.) And Sanford–while the butt of jokes for his phony Appalachian Trail hiking–seems to be the only one to have fallen in love with a woman who he’s now engaged to. It’s tempting to lump them all in together–Spitzer and Sanford, former governors felled by sex scandals seeking political redemption!–but the specifics of each case really are different.

Regardless, not everyone is ready to forgive and forget. The New York Times’ editorial board isn’t jumping on the Spitzer-Weiner redemption bandwagon , calling the duo “charter members of the Kardashian Party,” arguing their new scandal celebre doesn’t change their actual records while in office.

Boston Globe columnist Joanna Weiss argues it’s not about voters necessarily willing to forgive and forget–it’s about authenticity.

“Voters, on the whole, tend to think more strategically than that. They choose politicians on their relative merits, and they choose which scandals to overlook. Barney Frank didn’t weather bad news because of the public’s benevolence; he kept winning because voters in his district understood who he was, and wanted precisely that guy in office,” Weiss writes. And with Hillary Clinton following her husband’s infidelity: “No one was buying her, decades ago, as a blandly supportive political wife who really enjoyed baking cookies. But as a hyper-ambitious, hyper-competent woman who wouldn’t let embarrassment bring her down? That’s a politician people can believe in.”

Three days after admitting to the Lewinsky affair, Bill Clinton had a 69% approval rating and a 27% disapproval rating, according to an NBC/WSJ poll. Five weeks after Clinton was acquitted for perjury, Bubba had a 66% approval rating with just 31% disapproving.

Marina Ein, a crisis public relations expert who helped former Congressman Gary Condit –busted for having an extramarital affair with intern Chandra Levy, and temporarily (and falsely) suspected in her disappearance and murder—told msnbc that American society has indeed gotten over political sex scandals, with the possible exception of in the armed forces.

“America has come far from its puritanical past…We do now understand that individuals are entitled to a private life, and if they’ve stumbled it doesn’t have any bearing on their performance, competence or how they’re doing in office.”

“It doesn’t mean we approve,” she added.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Mark Sanford resigned as governor. He resigned as chairman of the Republican Governors Association. 

Are we French now? Political sex scandals aren't career killers anymore