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Tilting at Windmills

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October 4, 2010

TRYING TO UNDERSTAND A DOUBLE-STANDARD.... I've long tried to understand the double-standard when it comes to politicians and sex scandals -- while common sense suggests they should be far more damaging to Republicans given the party's moralizing, the opposite appears to be true.

Dave Weigel takes a crack at explaining this, noting three, recent, high-profile adulterers: Eliot Spitzer (D-N.Y.), David Vitter (R-La.), and Mark Sanford (R-S.C.). The two Republicans ran as evangelical, "family-values" conservatives, but got caught having sex with women who were not their wives. (In Vitter's case, he was caught with at least two prostitutes.) Neither Republican resigned -- on the contrary, Vitter appears likely to win another term, and Sanford hasn't ruled out seeking public office again. Spitzer, meanwhile, resigned almost immediately after his sex scandal. As Dave sees it, the party identification is irrelevant.

What's the difference? I have a bunch of theories. First, Spitzer was in New York, with a hungry and aggressive media -- including national media -- which had covered him as a star for years. Vitter and Sanford were relatively obscure to non-political junkies until their scandals. The second and, in retrospect, stupidest theory, keys off of this. It's that Spitzer, the "cop of Wall Street," was unusually hypocritical by buying a prostitute. The hypocrisy test is always subjective -- I could agree that cost-cutting Sanford was a hypocrite, too.

The third theory is the one I'm most convinced of. It's pure political advantage. When Vitter's scandal erupted, a Democrat was governor of Louisiana, so there was no upside to getting him to resign -- a Democrat would replace him. Sanford was leaving office, and no one in the GOP wanted his lieutenant governor -- a much-disliked pol who ended up coming in last in the 2010 gubernatorial primary -- to replace him. But Spitzer's implosion happened when Democrats had control of most of the state, were headed to a landslide fall election, and saw him, already, as their biggest liability. Personally, Democrats in Albany were butting heads with him. He didn't resign because of the scandal. He resigned because no one wanted him to stay.

That's fairly compelling, but there are some examples that run counter to Dave's theory. The most striking is Nevada Sen. John Ensign (R), who's in the midst of a sex/corruption/ethics scandal. If he stepped down to focus on his legal defense, a Republican governor would fill the vacancy. For that matter, Ensign has never been wildly popular or influential in the Senate GOP caucus, so forcing him out after he disgraced himself -- and became the subject of a federal criminal investigation -- would have made perfect sense as far as "political advantage" goes.

But Ensign didn't resign, and Republicans didn't try to push him overboard. At this point, despite the humiliation, the FBI probe, and the Senate ethics investigation, Ensign remains a Republican senator in good standing -- and he's taking steps to seek re-election in 2012.

I like Dave's explanation, but the examples that run counter to the theories are numerous. Rudy Giuliani, for example, was in New York with "a hungry and aggressive media -- including national media -- which had covered him as a star for years," but when he cheated on his second wife with his third, and marched in a St. Patrick's Day parade with his mistress, the idea of him resigning never really came up.

When Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons (R) strayed from his wife during his time in office, the was a political advantage to forcing him out -- Nevada's lieutenant governor would have kept the office in Republican hands -- but it didn't matter and he'll serve out the remainder of his term.

Democrats caught up in sex scandals -- Spitzer, John Edwards, Jim McGreevey, and to a lesser extent, Eric Massa -- tend to quickly resign and avoid politics. Republicans -- Vitter, Ensign, Sanford, Gingrich, Giuliani -- prefer a far different approach, reject the idea of being permanently disgraced, and the GOP doesn't seem to mind.

I can appreciate why IOKIYAR seems like a lazy cliche, but I'm not convinced it's wrong.

Steve Benen 2:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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I kind of like INOKIYSTBAL. It's not okay if you're supposed to be a leader.

America, for all it's "christian" pride is completely (at least according to their book) morally bankrupt!

- Trollop

Posted by: Trollop on October 4, 2010 at 2:21 PM | PERMALINK

Whatever the answer, it isn't good for the GOP.

Posted by: Bob M on October 4, 2010 at 2:25 PM | PERMALINK

I think that Republicans play the "Jesus" card: I sinned, but I spoke to Jesus and he has forgiven me, so you should too. Their followers fall for it EVERY time!

Posted by: ML on October 4, 2010 at 2:26 PM | PERMALINK

Republicans -- Vitter, Ensign, Sanford, Gingrich, Giuliani -- prefer a far different approach, reject the idea of being permanently disgraced, and the GOP doesn't seem to mind.

And neither do their voters.

Posted by: Jack Lindahl on October 4, 2010 at 2:33 PM | PERMALINK

I think there are a couple key things.

1. Conservatives are tribal. They tend to rally around their own and defend them even when they screw up. Despite all the talk about morality, for most of the right it's really about us versus them. The moral language is just their way of verbalizing this in a less offensive way. Most of the things they do moralize about are really about preserving the power of hetrosexual males in society, not any real sense of morality.

2. Since the 70s at least, liberals have tended to be more concerned with ethics than conservatives when it comes to their leaders.

3. The Democratic party is a party of coalitions, so their is much less sense of the rally around the leader affect. In other words, when Conservatives attack the Democrat involved in the scandal (which they do since they don't care about hypocrisy) the response is often to just give in. This ties into the general relationship between the two parties for the last 20 years at least.

Posted by: Topher on October 4, 2010 at 2:41 PM | PERMALINK

I think the word you are looking for is shameless. And it applies to policy as well as personal transgressions. It is the absolute refusal to acknowledge wrong doing and to try to give it a Rovian spin as 'a good thing'.

Posted by: k l m on October 4, 2010 at 2:42 PM | PERMALINK

Republican lawmakers are typically powerful men, and powerful men have always gotten a pass on 'family values'-- it's one of their historical privileges. What Republicans, both male and female, promise is enforcement of conservative social mores, especially on shiftless minorities and society-destabilizing hippies. They don't expect most people to actually meet their unreasonable standards; they just expect the consequences of failure to be brutal for those who can't afford to evade them. That's why people like Vitter & Ensign can stay in office, and anti-choice protestors can sneak their daughters into abortion clinics, and all of the various parenting failures of the privileged classes only come out when the kids are older.

Really, you'll never go wrong if you just assume that the right will always, always advocate for social standards that clearly establishes privileged and non-privileged classes. And anyone who identifies as a Republican envisions themselves as belonging to one of the more relatively privileged (not necessarily economically, but always culturally) groups.

Posted by: latts on October 4, 2010 at 2:45 PM | PERMALINK

ML has it right; all these guys (and they are all guys) have to do is say their lord has forgiven them, they have repented, and then everyone has permission to proceed as if nothing has happened. If anyone dares to bring up dirty laundry, then they are shamed into quietude with the biblical admonition, "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone," which can only be a reminder that the daring critic will be shamed further with tales of their own sins if they don't shut up. That is how the Christian world works it. It also very conveniently works for non-adulterers, such as Ralph Reed and his ilk.

Posted by: withay on October 4, 2010 at 2:46 PM | PERMALINK

The idea is usually, "Well, as long as he's telling everyone else to be moral and upstanding, his personal failings don't matter." This is often a defense for anti-gay pastors that turn out to be gay, that they're still admired for fighting against homosexuality.

Craziest version of this mindset I've seen recently: Kathryn Jean Lopez from National Review, defending Mel Gibson for his "wonderful" opinions on the role of women, *after* the release of all those bizarre tapes this summer:


Posted by: Sviluppo on October 4, 2010 at 2:47 PM | PERMALINK

It's actually quite simple. Perhaps you've seen the bumper stickers that read, "Christians aren't perfect - just forgiven." Republicans are Christians. So they can be forgiven. Democrats are not Christians, so they cannot be forgiven. That, at least, is the perception of those voters who are willing to overlook the transgressions of the Vitters and the Ensigns.

And if that reads like I'm just being snarky, I'm not. That's the base, and that's how they think.

Posted by: Roddy McCorley on October 4, 2010 at 2:59 PM | PERMALINK

Conservatives are arrogant jerks and know they can lie to their base they will swallow it every time.

Posted by: Silver Owl on October 4, 2010 at 3:03 PM | PERMALINK

I've often thought Spitzer could have survived his scandal. He resigned shockingly early, and without a fight. My wife thinks it's perhaps because he was the rare politician who decided repairing his marriage was more important.

Posted by: Kevin Ray on October 4, 2010 at 3:05 PM | PERMALINK

Brit Hume's advice to Tiger Woods to become a Christian makes a lot more sense in light of some of the above comments. Hume was basically telling Woods that as long as he's a "Christian" he can do whatever he wants and then just claim that he prayed and was forgiven. He obviously wasn't denigrating Buddhism as a religion, he was just saying that Christianity is better for P.R.

Posted by: Alan on October 4, 2010 at 3:14 PM | PERMALINK

You ignore the most striking differences between Spitzer and the others. All those Republicans caught up in scandals are defenders of the status quo. Spitzer, at the time the scandal broke, was going after crooks and thieves on Wall Street with a vengeance, and then, suddenly, the Bush DOJ targeted him as part of a prostitution probe which ultimately took him out of the picture just in time for Wall Street to crash and all the banksters to walk away unscathed with huge bonuses. Can you imagine how differently the last two years might have gone with Spitzer and Cuomo tag-teaming Wall Street? The NYPD would have been frog-marching Goldman Sachs scumbags out of their swanky offices in handcuffs! Spitzer had to go, and the Bush DOJ and the corporate-owned media made it happen.

Posted by: Alan on October 4, 2010 at 3:14 PM | PERMALINK

lol, I'm the other Alan- my comment was about Tiger Woods. Funny that someone with my name posted a comment at the exact same time.

Posted by: Alan on October 4, 2010 at 3:16 PM | PERMALINK

I actually think the double standard is an expectations issue. I think expectations of Republicans are so low that no one is surprised by their hypocrisy or corruption - it's dog bites man. On the other hand, Democrats are supposed to be above that - fighting for the little guy, for peace, for justice, etc. They are supposed to be better so it's man bites dog.

It's really a non-story when it's a Republican. Just like crazed whackadoodle idiocy is becoming a non-story for the Tea Party.

Posted by: Kija on October 4, 2010 at 3:31 PM | PERMALINK

How could you ignore the Clinton fiasco over a BJ ?

No money, no actual affair, just a feeding frenzy that held the country hostage for years. I cannot imagine that would have have happened if Bush got a BJ (mainly because he would have weaseled his way out of the Congressional hearing). They would probably insist being a war President was so stressful he deserved it.

And of course the rights infatuation of the Kennedy supposed affairs.

Posted by: ScottW714 on October 4, 2010 at 3:34 PM | PERMALINK

I've wondered what would happen if some random Democratic politician, I don't know, say Barack Obama's teenage daughter became pregnant, if such an event would inspire the same restraint in the media and blogosphere (Sullivan excepted) that the right demands in dealing with media figure Bristol Palin's personal life.
Then I wonder what if the Democrats had a Rovian figure who could leak a hoax pregnancy and test the reaction just for kicks.

Posted by: Mike on October 4, 2010 at 4:30 PM | PERMALINK

Republicans have no conscience; most Democrats do.

Posted by: cr on October 4, 2010 at 4:35 PM | PERMALINK

Democrats are wussies who lack tough-guy political resolve?

Posted by: Bobo Teh Clown on October 4, 2010 at 4:45 PM | PERMALINK

I think the right-wing talk machine makes a big difference. In real news, stories get old. You can't keep writing about Vitter forever. But Hannity NEVER lets up

Posted by: David Crisp on October 4, 2010 at 5:21 PM | PERMALINK

This discussion picks up on two threads I have noticed over and over.

The first = the Goldilocks pattern.
The Demo is always too this or too that (hot/cold, pandering/aloof, aggressive/passive, shriek/meek,) but the Repub is always Just Right

The second = Simplistic attack mode
Every Dem molehill a mountain.
Every Repub mountain a molehill.

The Repubs and their base love myths and themes and dislike facts and reality. The Repub leaders and power brokers know how to energize their followers and get the power they want.

For this discussion, Repubs have established a theme that they are trying to be good and promote goodness and wholesomeness (myth). Therefore, an occasional fail can be minimized (molehill).
But Dems are out to spread loose living and every fail needs to be trumpeted as an example of the destruction Dems are trying to bring down on society (mountain).

Same pattern follows on crime as the Repubs have set the theme that they are tough and Dems soft. As noted above, Repubs are only tough on crime committed by the not-fully-Americans. How many rich, white males get the death penalty and execution versus the poor and non-white?

Look at Gov Huckleberry who intervened directly in the parole and/or pardon of a convicted rapist who went out and killed multiple times. He gets light treatment, even in the presidential primaries. But Gov Dukakis gets trashed over Willy Horton who killed while out on furlough.

For the record, the furlough program was started by the preceding, Repub governor and Dukakis had no direct involvement in Horton's furlough. But it fit the theme that Repubs spin and the lame media laps it up. They just need to keep repeating a simple theme and avoiding facts and detail.

The best quote of many years is from Colbert.
Truth has a liberal slant/bias.


Posted by: JimK on October 4, 2010 at 6:52 PM | PERMALINK

In reference to Mike's comment at 4:30PM, I wonder if Bristol Palin is still "off-limits" for criticism by anyone that wants to be taken "seriously" in the media.

Despite the way her unwed, teenaged pregnancy showed how unrealistic her mother's moralistic preaching on "family values" are.. Despite the way she and her "fiance" were given a public meeting with McCain to assure everyone of their intention to "do the right thing"... Despite the way she and her siblings (including the baby) were forced to sit (be held) in front of the cameras for hours at the Repubican National Convention... We have been told that any mention of her by anyone that doesn't like Sarah Palin is quote "going after the family" and therefore is totally unacceptable.

But now she is personally cashing in on her family's celebrity status with a stint on Dancing With the Stars. So does that make her a legitimate target for the gossip-mongers, just like any other celebrity? or is she still protected by the double standard?

P.S. When I say double standard, I refer to the fact that many of the same conservatives that have leapt to her defense have been savagely critical of Amy Carter and Chelsea Clinton even though they were deliberately kept out of the spotlight as much as possible by their parents.

Posted by: tanstaafl on October 4, 2010 at 7:41 PM | PERMALINK

Spitzer too was guilty of hubris -- chasing down miscreants in the financial world with excessive, unseemly joy and self righteousness. When he fell, many rejoiced because a mean guy got done to. Awful as they are, Vitter, Sanford and Ensign maintain a milder public manner. People were appalled with them, but I don't recall anyone laughing with personal pleasure at their downfalls (such as they were). I was more creeped out by the C Street religious dorm set up and the sheer ickiness of those guys "counseling" the likes of Ensign, for example. Although the Appalachian Trail excuse was hilarious and has entered the language, at least for now, as a synonym for fooling around when and with whom you shouldn't.

Posted by: SF on October 4, 2010 at 7:59 PM | PERMALINK

I think Topher's comment on Republican / Conservative tribalism pretty much hits the nail on the head. As an example, I get why the owners of the Republican party don't want people to believe in Global Warming, but only tribalism (in the 'pissing of the liberals' manifestation) explains the passionate embrace of Global warming denial-ism by the rank and file.

Interestingly however, the Clinton example is almost a counter-example. Two Republican speakers of the House had to step down and the Clenis got to keep his job. The need to piss off the other side beat out the usual need to rally around their own guy.

Posted by: jhe on October 4, 2010 at 10:16 PM | PERMALINK

Hmm. Yeah, maybe. I will just make two observations:
1) Almost all media outlets today are owned by corporations.
2) The GOP typically receives much more corporate largesse than the Democrats.

Posted by: josef on October 5, 2010 at 12:30 AM | PERMALINK

I think that Democrats and/or liberals are more moral. It's just that liberal morality goes deeper and broader, to allow for the sanctity of marital vows for those who choose to proclaim them, and for a less binding phase of life for others who choose something different. The other difference is so blindingly obvious that we forget to mention it: So-called conservative morality is mainly binding on females -- the boys are expected to sow some wild oats, while the teenage girls are expected to remain pure. The Spitzer case fits perfectly -- as liberals, we hold the male to a similar standard (if not even higher) than the wife, and conservatives are more of a patriarchal view.

Posted by: Bob G on October 5, 2010 at 12:56 AM | PERMALINK

The next Democrat in trouble should say, over and over, "I will resign when Vitter and Ensign resign." Force the media to face the hypocrisy, force them to keep asking Vitter and Ensign when they will resign. At minimum, remind the voters of what these Republicans did. At best, they finally give into the pressure and resign themselves.

Posted by: urban legend on October 5, 2010 at 3:43 AM | PERMALINK

Spitzer had a Wall Street bulls-eye painted on his butt. He made enemies of billionaires who wanted him destroyed.

Here's my take: Spitzer was called "Client #9", but he was, in fact, the ONLY client. "Emperor's Club", which existed primarily in web-space, was primarily, if not entirely a trap set up to ensnare Spitzer.

Crazy, perhaps, but at the very least it would make a good movie plot ;)

Posted by: thalarctos on October 5, 2010 at 2:28 PM | PERMALINK

Some say that "shameful" and "shameless" mean the same thing, but I think this situation proves otherwise. Democrats may be shameFUL, but Republicans are shameLESS.

That is, Democrats may do shameful things, but when they do--or at least when they are found out--they have the grace at least to feel shame. They may be shameful, but they are not shameless.

Republicans, on the other hand, appear to feel no shame, even when they are found to have behaved shamefully. That's why they can brazen it out: they are both shameful and shameless.

Posted by: Nancy Irving on October 6, 2010 at 9:36 AM | PERMALINK



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