Thursday, November 07, 2002

Youthful Indiscretions?-This is an interesting point to ponder; how long in a candidate’s past do moral transgressions have to be in order to be out of play as an issue? There is a Gary Hart 2004 presidential boomlet (maybe only in the chattering classes) going down, and I wonder if how much the Monkey Business that came out in his abortive 1988 campaign would come into play today. To an extent, it would depend upon the political party and how long ago the transgression was. Democrats have an easier time getting through sex scandals, as their base is less concerned about adultery. I remember Don Riegle winning multiple elections in Michigan despite multiple divorces and affairs. Clinton managed to get elected president twice with an implied admission of infidelity. However, a Republican who had an affair as a mature adult would have a hard time getting elected. This is the problem Tim Hutchinson ran into, having divorced his wife and marrying one of his staffers. There might not have been any extra-marital hanky-panky involved, but there’s enough of a track record of politicians having affairs with staffer, divorcing, then marrying staffer to cast the assumption of infidelity on Hutchinson or other politicians in a similar circumstance. It’s hard to run on a “family values” platform and dump your wife; it makes the candidate look like a hypocrite. If you’re a liberal or a small-l libertarian, you can go through a divorce or an affair and be less damaged, since you’re not running as a guardian of the public virtue. However, even they will have to answer the old Perot question: “If your wife can’t trust you, why should I?” In the case of Henry Hyde, a forty-year-old affair that came to light during the Clinton impeachment hearings wasn’t flattering, but he had a quarter-century record of being on the right side of moral issues to mitigate his past failings. J.C. Watts might have had kids out of wedlock in his younger days, but his support for a moral public policy and present morality mitigate against past indiscretions. This also applies to drug and alcohol problems. Dubya’s DWI as a twenty-something was less damaging than Rostenkowski’s DWI as a veteran congressman. College-age pot use by any number of politicians was less damaging than the law-professor use by Douglas Ginsberg, which shot down his Supreme Court nomination. Is a fifteen-year-old affair long enough in the past to make Gary Hart electable? Assuming that he was a front-runner (and he ain’t), he might be nominatable, but it sure wouldn’t help him with swing voters.

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