I’ve been asked this question a number of times in the past 48 hours: Why do some politicians caught in a scandal get to stay in office and why do some have to leave in disgrace?
Why, for example, does a Bill Clinton remain and watch his numbers actually go up and why does a John Vitter end up in the U.S. Senate and why does Eliot Spitzer have to go?
There are three distinct elements that answer that question.
The first is hypocrisy. Voters just don’t like people who say one thing and then completely do another. That has brought down everyone from Richard Nixon (“I am not a crook”, but he was) to the garden-variety Christian televangelists (who live by the sword but had a hard time keeping the sword in its sheath).
On the other hand, Sens. John Vitter and Larry Craig have kept their political positions. It’s true that they have, but Craig will step down at the end of his term and Vitter has most certainly given his last family values speech. In Spitzer’s case, the hypocrisy has been palpable, a moral and ethical crusader, who by all accounts refused to laugh at dirty jokes, and described himself as an “f*****g steamroller.” Spitzer never suffered the foibles of those who got caught in his crosshairs. Once he decided on his targets, he preyed upon them and never relented. Small reason why there are few people on Wall Street who feel sorry for him.
Spitzer was not in any position to beg forgiveness because he never, ever forgave.
No. 2 is illegality. There has to be a clear violation of the law. And let’s face it, we’re not talking about parking and traffic scofflaws. Bill Clinton was getting nailed on perjury because Americans believed, according to my polls, that even presidents are entitled to some privacy.
Vitter saw a prostitute. That’s between himself and his wife.
Craig stood wide before the law, but the law was only a misdemeanor and a pretty stupid law at that. In Spitzer’s case, the tawdry sex aspects are salacious, but this is the crusader against white-collar crime acting like a thug, setting up shell corporations, transferring money. All that’s missing is the visor and the rubber gloves.
The activity seems pathological and the irony of an attorney general acting as a criminal can’t be avoided, especially acting like the very kind of criminal that Spitzer himself would have nailed to the wall.
Finally, there’s political expendability. With New York Democrats one seat away from taking over the state Senate and a Republican Party starting to rebound after the 2006 debacle, the Party simply could not afford to have Spitzer at the helm. His popularity was already low, his behavior to friends and foes alike perplexing. It begged the question: What to do with a mortally wounded governor?
This is a key difference.
Republicans in Idaho know that they’re going to win the Senate seat in the next election. Louisiana Republicans could not afford a special election at the time (there was then a Democratic governor). Congressman Jefferson would probably win re-election, but on top of the hypocrisy, the illegality, the campaign to punish Democratic friends as well as Republican enemies, Spitzer had no one to go to and nowhere to go.
A number of reporters have called and asked about the potential impact of all this on Sen. Hillary Clinton’s campaign. There may be some reminders of the impeachment months, but I think the real impact will be felt on the Obama campaign.
New York’s new governor, David Patterson, is a young and dynamic African-American, a legislator who frequently and comfortably crosses the aisle to work with the opposition.
If he is able to restore vision, common-purpose, and create a bi-partisan agenda in the next few months, he will not only succeed in getting New York state back on the right track, but could be just the metaphor that Barack Obama needs as he approaches the Democratic National Convention in August.
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