While there may be nothing new about political sex scandals, what may be new is the “get out of jail free” cards that scandal-stained lawmakers seem to have in their back pockets.
First, look at Louisiana Sen. David Vitter, who was caught up in a prostitution scandal in 2007. Just a few years later, in 2010, the state’s voters easily propelled the Republican back into office for a second, six-year term. Now speculation suggests he may run for governor in 2015 when current Gov. Bobby Jindal’s term is up.
How about former Democratic Congressman Anthony Weiner? He’s reportedly already eyeing a comeback from the 2011 sexting scandal that forced him to resign. The New Yorker recently shelled out more than $100,000 for polling and research.
Finally, there’s former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, whose political career was derailed in 2009 following revelations of an extramarital affair with an Argentinian television reporter. Now he’s running in a special election for the House. Polls show the Republican neck-and-neck with Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch (comedian Stephen Colbert’s sister).
“What’s different that allows politicians to survive sex scandals that were once fatal?” Hardball host Chris Matthews asked Wednesday night. “Is it changing times? The culture? Does it depend on where you live?”
The Washington Post’s Emily Heil told Matthews that it shows “just how much we’re willing to forgive” nowadays. Vitter, she said, was “put out to the woodshed for awhile…[and now] he’s a-okay. He’s everybody’s best pal and he’s really completed his rehabilitation. Clearly there’s a template for this, and I think what he did, he sort of stuck around and kept his head down, which is one strategy.”
Eugene Robinson, a Washington Post columnist, said he was surprised by Sanford’s comeback, especially because the state is conservative.
“What I think is different now, is that you don’t have to have the charisma or family name of a Ted Kennedy or the dazzle of a Bill Clinton,” said Robinson, in reference to Kennedy’s Chappaquiddick incident and Clinton’s dalliance with a White House intern. “You can be Vitter, who was not exactly Mr. Charisma and you can survive now.”
So can lawmakers like Weiner really make a comeback?
“I think he can,” said Heil. “Maybe not now, not in the immediate future, but he’s young, he’s got fundraising ability, he’s got friends and he can always say he never actually had an affair….so I say some day, maybe.”