On Friday, former State Department and Obama administration aide Jen Psaki wrote a piece for CNN about why some politicians survive sex scandals and others do not. It largely consists of a list of superficial reasons based on relatively recent case studies.
Psaki approaches the subject as one would expect from a 30-something worker bee immersed in the skeevy, utilitarian world of Washington moral relativism. That is to say she largely misses the mark and where she comes close to the mark it appears to only be accidental.
Obviously the article is an outgrowth of President Trump’s ongoing “bimbo eruption” with regard to porn star Stormy Daniels and each category in Psaki’s analysis is meant to reflect back on that and make us wonder whether Trump will survive politically.
When there is photographic evidence. We live in a visual society that was appalled by — and obsessed with –former congressman Anthony Weiner’s sexts, which included graphic shots of his crotch. It was also horrified by the far less offensive photos of Sen. Franken inappropriately pretending to grope the chest of a woman he was working with, but hours of interviews with a porn star describing her relationship with the President are not the same.
Anthony Weiner wasn’t completely taken down by a sex scandal. Yes he resigned from Congress but his political career hadn’t been totally sunk because he managed to mount a Democrat primary campaign Mayor of New York City. The evidence hadn’t driven Wiener from politics. That happened when it was revealed that his sexting behavior continued after his public mea culpa, and ultimately when he went to jail. Had his sexting partners all been of legal age, Weiner might arguably still hold some office or at least have a gig on CNN.
Franken on the other hand was not taken down by photographic evidence per se. He was a sacrificial lamb for the Democrats bent on impeaching or otherwise toppling Donald Trump’s presidency. The obvious hypocrisy of tolerating Franken’s idiocy while pretending to hold the moral high ground would be an unanswerable talking point for Democrats so Stuart Smalley had to go. Remember, this was a time when Democrats were even expressing their regrets for tolerating Bill Clinton’s sleaziness. In Washington, the morality of any act is judged according to how useful the actor is to the person or group doing the judging.
When the act contradicts the reputation. Donald Trump has never made a secret of his disrespect for women. He fat-shamed a beauty queen long before the “Acccess Hollywood” tape came out and said inappropriate things about his daughter Ivanka before that. He has long had a creepy factor. And that was already baked in when news of his alleged affairs came out.
Contradicting reputation is probably one of the more valid reasons Psaki presents. It’s not so much the dishonesty of the contradiction itself that makes it a problem. A politician with a squeaky clean reputation is going to attract a certain segment of voters for whom character really does matter (regardless of party). That’s a segment that is likely to abandon him without considering the political calculus. I would argue that situations like this are relatively rare and will become increasingly so in the Trump era as the “character matters” right continues to morph into the “nothing matters” right.
When force or children are involved. At least there is some consistency in modern politics that when force, as allegedly in the case of Gov. Eric Greitens of Missouri, or minors, in the case of allegations about the Alabama politician Roy Moore, are involved, the level of tolerance by the public plummets.
When there is lying involved. This is where it starts to get a little murky for Trump. As everyone who followed politics in the 1990s knows, it was lying under oath about his affair with Monica Lewinsky that nearly took Bill Clinton down. He had been accused of affairs before — with Gennifer Flowers, for example.
So far, Trump has denied knowing about the payment by his attorney Michael Cohen, a contention some doubt is true. But If he did know, his denial was only to the press, and not under oath. In the court of law, that is different.
When money changes hands. Just ask former Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards whether violating campaign finance laws matters to a reputation. When it is tied to a sex scandal, like Edwards’ in 2008, it can. Why? Because it is not only against the law, but campaign contributors and tax payers don’t like it when their money is used to pay off a woman with whom a politician is having an affair.
All of this amounts to the same thing addressed by the Anthony Weiner case. The sex scandal is not the reason for the downfall. The lawbreaking associated with it is. Psaki is blending political downfall based on public opinion with being convicted of criminal activity. These are not the same thing.
Also in politics when is lying NOT involved? If lying had consequences in Washington the city would be a ghost town. Suggesting that lying is one of the key factors should be objectively ridiculous to anyone that knows what the word “lying” actually means.
Psaki comes closest with her final reason politicians fail to survive sex scandals. This still falls short because it doesn’t delve into the real motivations involved.
When one party turns against you. Perhaps the most underrated indicator of the impact of a sex scandal is the reaction of the guilty politician’s own party. David Vitter survived a sex scandal, in the form of his name showing up on the “D.C. Madam” list back in 2007, in part because his party largely gave him a pass. Fast forward to 2011, when the entire Democratic leadership called on Anthony Weiner to resign — and knowing there was no other option, he did just that.
Right now, Republicans control the House and the Senate, and while many may be privately bothered by Donald Trump’s sexual indiscretions, that has not translated into an ounce of demand for accountability.
In Washington politics everyone is a tool. Tools are judged by their utility. Once the work that goes into maintaining a tool exceeds the benefit it provides, the tool gets thrown away.
At one time it appeared to many that this sort of cynical utilitarianism was mostly the realm of Democrats. It is hard not to notice when left wing feminist groups ignore plausible accusations of rape against a President who they can use to advance their agenda. It’s also hard not to notice the lionization of someone who left a woman to die in a submerged car while puzzling out how to save his political career from the scandal.
The rise of Trump has shown that not to be the case. Already some of his loyalists are resorting to the same inane tactics as Clinton’s defenders once used. Some of the 1990’s most vociferous proponents of “character” in leadership are now practically celebrating what these scandals say about Trump’s sexual prowess. The only way Trump will ever lose support from people like that is if he becomes a useless tool.