Maryland Attorney General Douglas Gansler had hoped to boost his campaign for governor recently with the announcement of his running mate, Del. Jolene Ivey.
But the only questions the press had were about accusations in The Washington Post that he had urged his state police drivers to use lights and sirens and ignore red lights and traffic to rush him to event.
He was even accused of turning on the equipment and driving himself when they refused. Despite the incident, which allegedly had occurred two years ago, the information coming to light now pushed it immediately to the forefront of Maryland campaign coverage.
All this is nothing compared to former Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner sending sexually explicit messages to women who weren’t his wife or hen former Republican Gov. Mark Sanford (S.C.) using public money to sneak away to a mistress in South America and then lied about it. Scandals, real and imagined, fuel a lot of political narratives. Personal scandals are often easier to understand and more relatable to most people than financial or political misdeeds. Yet, while some politicians see their careers end and comebacks fail, others manage to overcome the negative attention and make their way back to power or even continue their career uninterrupted.
“At the baseline level, most scandals are not fatal,” said Dr. Danny Hayes, a professor of political science at George Washington University.
Hayes explained how, although the details of the particular scandal can make a difference, there are a lot of reasons that politicians who are caught being unfaithful to their wives or commit other character-damning acts hold onto a hope of political redemption.
“Most research finds that most politicians survive scandals,” he said. “About 80 to 90 percent go on to survive in politics.”
University of Houston political scientist Scott Basinger released a study to that effect earlier this year, finding that sex scandals will likely only reduce an incumbent’s share of a general election vote by 5 percent.
When looking for a Jewish answer about whether to vote for a politician like Weiner or former President Bill Clinton after his own infidelity, the scandal has to be weighed in light of the larger context.
“In Judaism, teshuvah [repentance] is vital,” said Rabbi Sharon Brous, spiritual leader at IKAR congregation in Los Angeles. “The whole system is oriented around the idea that people can change.”
She explained that the kind of personal scandals so many politicians seem to get caught up in do not automatically prevent them from being seen as trustworthy politicians, but how they deal with it afterward can make all the difference.
“Accountability and sincerity matter,” Brous said. “They have to acknowledge that they did something wrong.”
It’s not really different from when private citizens do something wrong, just on a larger scale, she said. After saying sorry, it’s vital for politicians to admit that they did something wrong and, perhaps most importantly, what they are going to do to make up for it.
“You have to ask what has been done to try and repair the breach of trust,” Brous said.
Deep ethical considerations and forgiveness might be entirely beside the point, however, when it comes to politicians retaining or returning to power after a scandal.
“The high survival rates could be related to more mundane factors,” Hayes said, such as people voting along partisan lines, regardless of the candidate or what they may have done.
That would certainly explain the case of Sanford, the South Carolina governor whose high-profile marital infidelity in 2009 was followed by winning a seat in the House of Representatives last year. It would also apply to Louisiana Sen. David Vitter who admitted to visiting a Washington, D.C., brothel in 2007 and remains in Congress today.
In some cases, it could just be a matter of timing as the stigma attached to some behavior can change over the years. In the case of marijuana, for example, smoking went from absolutely out of the question to Bill Clinton’s infamous “did not inhale” remark to Barack Obama admitting to have tried it in college, with the issue hardly even mentioned by his opponents in the campaign. “
How people react is affected by the norms of the time,” Hayes said.
Not all politicians can stage a comeback, of course. Weiner and former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who was caught paying for prostitutes, both recently staged high-profile but ultimately futile comeback attempts as New York City mayor and comptroller respectively. But for a while, they seemed to benefit from their infamy before their eventual losses.
Historically, there has been a definite shift in terms of the widespread knowledge and investigation into personal scandals. Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy both engaged in a series of affairs, but their infidelity wasn’t reported until after their deaths. James Buchanan’s longtime relationship with William King, his eventual vice president, was apparently known about in political circles but not discussed as the scandal it most certainly would have been in the 1840s.
“It’s impossible to know what would have happened if everyone had known,” Hayes said of historically hidden scandals.
But considering the minimal effect on election results scandals seem to have, the number of elected politicians who retire, at least permanently, from the field seems unlikely to ever be large. They can rely on those who elected them to still want them to do what they were elected for.
Perhaps, it might be due to the seeming sincerity of their apologies or what they do afterward to make up for what they had done. Not that that helped Weiner in his recent run when he was again caught sending sexual text messages to another woman.
“The American people on the whole are either very forgiving or very forgetful,” Hayes said.
A more optimistic view would be to say that they’ve earned their redemption, apologizing and trying to make up for what they did and earn back the trust they’ve broken. Just because they claim to have turned over a new leaf, however, doesn’t necessarily earn back the votes.
“We are called to accept back those who repent,” Brous said, “but it doesn’t mean we have to put them back into office.”