Dec. 29, 2010
JUST A FLESH WOUND
Many shrug off scandals and come back to win
By JOSHUA SPIVAK
Despite suffering a scandal-plagued two years, one that includes both adultery allegations and an ongoing criminal investigation, Nevada Sen. John Ensign recently announced that he is seeking re-election.
Though his campaign coffers have been drained, early polls show that he has substantial in-state support. If successful, Ensign would be just the latest fatally flawed candidate to run and win office.
Nobody needs a reminder that politics has been beset by scandals. Yet politics is probably no more corrupt than in the past — in fact, due to campaign-finance reporting requirements and statutes like the recently overturned “honest services fraud,” politics may be cleaner than ever.
But it certainly doesn’t look that way, thanks to a big change in the way scandals are reported. Sex scandals and other personal embarrassments use to be covered up. Now, they are fair game. This development, coupled with the technological revolution that turns what used to be local gossip into a national story, means that if your governor disappears for a weekend rendezvous while “hiking the Appalachian Trail,” it could be all over the Internet in minutes.
We can see the mounting toll of sex scandals. In addition to Ensign, over the last six years we’ve seen vice-presidential nominee John Edwards, New York Gov. Elliot Spitzer and his replacement David Paterson, New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons, Rep. Vito Fossella of New York, Idaho Sen. Larry Craig and Louisiana Sen. David Vitter all caught in compromising situations.
That’s just the sex scandals. Run-of-the-mill corruption also has blossomed. Rep. Charles Rangel of New York, the former House Ways and Means chairman, received the first censure in nearly 30 years for his behavior. Others laid low include Reps. Duke Cunningham of California and Bob Ney of Illinois and Connecticut Gov. John Rowland, along with Illinois governors Rod Blagojevich and George Ryan. All were convicted of felonies while in office.
What is surprising isn’t the amount of scandals. It is that some offenders are able to shrug off the damage and win elections, something that Ensign is apparently intent on mimicking. The “fatally flawed” candidates of yesteryear are now easily winning office.
Vitter, who ran as a social conservative yet admitted to hiring prostitutes, easily won re-election by nearly 20%. Nathan Deal, who resigned from Congress under fire of corruption allegations, won the Georgia governorship; Florida’s new governor Rick Scott ran a company that received a $1.7 billion fine for misconduct. Rangel took nearly 80% of the vote in his re-election. Even Spitzer, Sanford and former Rep. Mark Foley of Florida all have talked about possibly running for office again.
It may be a culture change that has allowed the fatally flawed candidates to survive; we are just not as fazed by sex scandals. Financial scandals carry a burden, but they may be too arcane or easily glossed over. A candidate’s best hope may be something else — be in a strongly blue or red state (or district) where there is at best a small hope of being knocked off by an opponent from the other party. It is much easier to overcome the hurdle when the only problem is a primary. The candidate also is able to use political muscle, and the backing of people beholden to him or her, to defeat a primary opponent.
If the candidate is running in a two-party competitive area, the party members are more likely to rise up and remove the offender to ensure that they don’t lose the seat. Witness the case of Nevada’s Gibbons, who was crushed in the Republican primary.
With his multiple personal and legal problems, Ensign may seem like a poor candidate for re-election. But that might be a failure of our imagination. As Vitter, Rangel and others have shown, getting caught in a serious scandal no longer means you have to resign your office. In fact, it appears to be no longer a real bar to re-election.
Joshua Spivak is a Senior Fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Center for Government Reform at Wagner College.