Do Conservatives Really Always Survive Sexual Scandals?

Steven Benen at our sister site Washington Monthly, picks up Paul Krugman‘s question about why conservative politicians are not damaged by scandals that would destroy liberal pols. Virtually all of comments on Benen’s post seem to accept the premise of teflon-plated conservatives. We can all think of a David Vitter or two to support that case, but I’d need to see a systematic study of scandals to accept that political ideology is a consistent predictor of consequences (or lack thereof).

Even one of Krugman’s examples “taking wide stances in restrooms” is in fact a counter-example: That scandal destroyed the career of Republican Senator Larry Craig. Congressmen Mark Souder, Mark Foley, Ed Schrock, Jim Bunn and Bob Livingston would be other counter-examples. And don’t forget Jack Ryan, the one time Obama opponent who had to resign in a sexual scandal in which he didn’t even have sex.

Addendum: Bonus points to those commenters below who remind me of the recent and high-profile self-destruction of Governor Mark Sanford, he of the Argentinian mistress.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans and drugs. He is the author or co-author of numerous books and scholarly articles, and has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, The Guardian (UK), the San Francisco Chronicle and other media outlets. When he is not in the San Francisco Bay Area, he is usually in London, where he is an ad hoc policy adviser to the national and city government, an honorary professor of psychiatry at Kings College, a senior editorial adviser to the journal Addiction, and a member of The Athenaeum. When he is not in the San Francisco Bay Area or London, he is usually in Washington D.C., where he serves as a frequent science and policy advisor to federal agencies, and where he has served previously as an appointee to a White House commission and several Secretarial task forces. From July 2009-2010, he served as Senior Policy Advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. When he is not in the San Francisco Bay Area or London or Washington D.C., he is usually in the Middle East, where since 2004 he has volunteered in the international humanitarian effort to rebuild Iraq’s mental health care system. This work has taken him to Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon to teach and consult with Iraqi health professionals and policy makers.

21 thoughts on “Do Conservatives Really Always Survive Sexual Scandals?”

  1. A more accurate statement might be that occasionally conservatives get away with something that no liberal could get away with. There is the temptation to include the race as an effect (thus Thomas and Cain), but the N is way too small to reach such a conclusion without further supporting evidence. Are conservative Blacks treated differently, assumed to be less civilized (for want of a better word)? Cain seems to be able to say things, or better, to say things in a way that no one, not even other conservatives could/would dare say. Similarly, Thomas continues in his position even though there are real problems with several aspects of his behavior as a SCOTUS judge. Hmm, perhaps there is a reverse racism going on.

    Something to think about…

  2. Craig and Foley were dumped by their own party for being gay. Livingston wasn’t made to resign, he just did. Maybe he thought the GOP would have more credibility in going after Clinton if he did. Souder and Bunn I had not heard of until now– not exactly a Weiner, Spitzer, Clinton, etc. level scandal. The rule holds.

  3. To be fair, conservatives wonder why Kennedy managed to continue to have a career after killing that woman, why Frank managed to stay in Congress after having a prostitution ring run out of his apartment, why Rangel isn’t doing hard time for tax evasion, and so forth. I think both sides cut their own people too much slack by far, and tend to notice the other side’s indiscretions more.

    Confirmation bias is endemic on both sides.

    1. Brett’s delusional, as always. I do wish Rangle would skate into the sunset–and tax evasion is a very small part of the reason for it. But Barney Frank was in no way involved in the prostitution activities of his one-time “assistant” and guilt by association doesn’t fly. Kennedy certainly should have born some responsibility for that death, but the bulk of it is on his aides. On the other hand, applying the Bob Packwood standards to the rest of Congress would leave us with very few public servants. Still, even among these people, Vinner, Foley, Ensign, Chenoweth stand out–none in a good way.

  4. That would be Mary Jo. That Marilyn was killed by/for President Kennedy is a conspiracy theory I don’t put much stock in, but there’s not much question about who killed Mary Jo, then left to get a good night’s sleep before reporting it.

  5. On the R side, Mark Sanford also had his career killed by a scandal that involved sex (also dereliction of duty, and lying). On the D side Barney Frank survived a sex scandal that was fairly epic. So Conservative pols definitely have had their careers ended by sex scandals, and Dems have survived sex scandals. One of the biggest factors seems to be whether the politician is determined to tough it out; of those who refused to resign, about the only one whose career was ended by a sex scandal was Mark Sanford, at least the only one that leaps to mind.

    That being said, I think there is a difference. This is especially the case given the hypocrisy of the Social Conservative party closing ranks around some of its offenders; see Diaper Dave Vitter and Joe “My wife and I agreed that it was less hassle if I didn’t pay $120k in child support” Walsh, both of whom get to run as Family Values candidates. I refuse to believe those people wouldn’t be gone if they weren’t Republicans. I think the big difference is that the Left doesn’t have a Mighty Wurlitzer to build and maintain scandalous stories about people on the Right, or at least nothing comparable to what the Right has.

    PS Calling All Toasters, calling Foley’s behavior homosexual is grossly unfair to homosexuals.

  6. I do not advocate this happening, but it would be karmic justice if one of the right wingers who has glibly played Clarence Toady’s “high tech lynching” card as to Herman Cain were to become the guest of honor at an actual lynching, so as to understand why such a horrible word should not be cheapened by casual use. Perhaps Ann Coulter, who once made the vile suggestion that someone should put rat poison in Justice Stevens’ creme brulee.

    If in the next life Clarence Uncle Thomas and Herman Cain wind up in the same place as Leo Frank, I hope that Mr. Frank beats the stuffing out of both of them.

  7. Also former SC gov. Mark Sanford, the guy who hiked the Appalachian trail (although current SC gov. Nikki Haley survived accusations of manizing).

    My guess about what Benen and Krugman were thinking is that they consider surviving to be surviving until the next election (and then maybe retiring). Many Democrats caught with their pants down have resigned (even if, as in the case of Weiner they keep their underpants on). So the difference may be that Republican politicians are stubborn and shameless not that Republican voters are forgiving or hypocritical. Notably Larry Craid still insists that he is a totally straight faithful husband. I tend to guess that the difference is that more Democrats admit that the truth when faced with proof. That would seem to fit the pattern noticeable in debates on issues which have nothing to do with politicians sex lives.

  8. “That being said, I think”

    We should admit the initial hypothesis, that liberals always get taken down by sex scandals, and conservatives never do, is refuted? And that drawing any valid conclusions with more nuance would require hard numbers to avoid simply falling prey to confirmation bias?

    I heartily agree!

  9. This would be a good study for a political scientist (and perhaps it has already been done). Trawl through the last 200 scandals and code the dimensions mentioned above and also the outcome. There will be some patterns I suspect, but also some variance unexplained because this is probably at least partly idiosyncratic to a politician’s personality and his district. Charlie Wilson represented a conservative district and it seemed he was caught snorting cocaine off of a Playboy bunny or the like every other week, and his constituents just shrugged and said “Well, that’s Charlie for you” and kept voting for him.

    And as long as I am telling Charlie Wilson stories, he once got his campaign team together before an election and said “Fellas, I know I’ve put you guys through a lot with my crazy behavior. Well, I have some good news for you. I am in love with a God-fearing Christian and she has really straightened me out. We are going to get married…as soon as she graduates high school”.

  10. > We should admit the initial hypothesis, that liberals always get taken down
    > by sex scandals, and conservatives never do, is refuted? And that drawing
    > any valid conclusions with more nuance would require hard numbers to avoid
    > simply falling prey to confirmation bias?

    I’m waiting with tingly anticipation for Mr. Bellmore’s analysis of (1) the Jeffry Gannon/Guckert non-scandal [37 day passes to the White House with no record of exit at closing time and not a single major media story] and (2) Newt Gingrich and the Three Wives vs The Impeachment.

    Cranky

  11. I suspect one of the dynamics is how well you’re representing your district. If they’re already restive, a scandal may just give them the excuse they needed to get rid of you.

  12. Cranky, the impeachment period was atypical, because you had Clinton releasing all those Filegate records through cutouts, to persuade the Republicans to back off. It’s kind of like comparing death statistics during peacetime to death statistics during a war.

  13. It’s hard to make comparisons because it’s all so context-dependent, but I’d guess that Democrats used to be able to get away with scandal in a way they are not today. We can’t seem to find a Dem example more recent than Frank.

    I’m amused that nobody seems to want to describe Clinton as having survived a sex scandal. I think that’s correct, but it says a lot about what we all think was actually underlying that situation.

    1. More of an obstruction of justice scandal, of course. That it was just a sex scandal was the defense. Now that he’s retired, and doesn’t need defending, who needs to pretend anymore?

  14. If Brett’s study is ever made, Louisiana should be excluded. Edwin Edwards seemed to think that a Louisiana pol could get in trouble only if caught “with a live boy or a dead girl.”

    To be more serious, I’m not sure that party is as important as region. I’d hazard that the South has a greater tolerance for hypocrisy and corruption; the North for nonstandard but nonabusive penile uses; and the West is just more tolerant, period. But I wouldn’t bet the mortgage on this. And of course, political cultures don’t quite follow geography literally. Central Cal and Alaska are both Okie political culture, which is mostly Southern.

  15. I think it also has a lot to do with 1) how well liked you are by other politicians at the moment, and 2) what’s the loss/gain of replacing you.

    Elliot Spitzer, who was hated by everyone of both parties, and who was guaranteed to replaced by a Democrat. Also, Trent Lott (though a different type of scandal), who went down not just because of his what he said, but because the Bush administration found it a convenient cudgel with which to get rid of someone they wanted gone. I think many Southern pols could survive almost any type of scandal if it means keeping the seat away from a Dem.

    Of course, Weiner is a counterfactual to #2, since he gave away a safe D seat.

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