The depressing lesson of political sex scandals
In January 1992, a woman named Gennifer Flowers held a press conference in which she claimed that she had a years-long affair with Bill Clinton, who was then leading the race to be the Democratic nominee for president. At the time I was working for one of Clinton's rivals, and I called up a good friend of mine who was on Clinton's staff, just to gloat. He sighed heavily and said, "To be honest, Gennifer Flowers may be the only woman in Arkansas Bill Clinton hasn't slept with."
As it turned out, we were both wrong. I was wrong because along with everyone else I thought the scandal would torpedo Clinton's campaign, and my friend was wrong because Clinton later admitted that he had in fact slept with Flowers (though he denied a long affair). But 25 years later, we're seeing the lesson of that campaign, and Bill Clinton's subsequent history, play out yet again.
When it comes to sex scandals, the politicians who are the most guilty and the least repentant are the ones who survive.
Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) is expected to announce his resignation on Thursday, after two more allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior were published on Wednesday and most of his Democratic colleagues in the Senate called for him to step down. If that is indeed what happens, it will be a turn of events that is at once rare — senators very seldom voluntarily give up their seats for any reason, let alone for allegations that haven't been proven in court — and unsurprising, if you understand how scandals like this usually proceed.
That's because Franken was contrite and apologetic when the allegations first emerged. While he said in general terms that he didn't remember events in the same way his accusers did, he didn't attack them or call them liars, and he pledged to do better. When a politician reacts that way, there's a good chance he's on his way out.
And who survives this kind of scandal? The ones that are the least repentant — and often, the most guilty.
Clinton is a perfect example. When Flowers made her allegation, he undertook one of the most epic damage control operations in American political history. He said Flowers wasn't telling the truth and arranged a high-stakes interview on 60 Minutes in which he and his wife Hillary defended the state of their marriage. "I have acknowledged wrongdoing. I have acknowledged causing pain in my marriage," he said, but steadfastly refused to answer specific questions about how he had done so. Never for a moment did he consider leaving the race. He just kept fighting, and he won the primaries and then the general election.
Then when the Monica Lewinsky story broke, at first Clinton denied it, but when he could no longer do so, he went on the offensive, against a hypocritical and puritanical Republican Party that wanted to criminalize personal sins. Just as he had in 1992, he survived and thrived, not only beating back impeachment but leaving office with approval ratings in the 60s.
We're getting another example right now.
When seemingly iron-clad evidence that Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore pursued and in some cases molested teenage girls as a man in his 30s emerged, what did he do? Did he apologize, beg for forgiveness, think about slinking away into anonymity? Hell no. He said that all the women are liars, the whole thing is a conspiracy against him, and he never did anything wrong.
And what happened? Despite accusations from eight women and stories about how he was known for skeeving around the local mall after young girls, a recent CBS poll found that 71 percent of Alabama Republicans say the allegations against Moore are false; only 17 percent believe they're true. The race between Moore and non-molester Doug Jones is basically a dead heat; if anything, Moore is leading slightly.
And if he wins, you'll see all those Republicans who called for him to drop out suddenly change their tune. Some of them, like Mitch McConnell, already have, switching their positions from He should leave the race to Let the people of Alabama decide. They won't refuse to seat him in the Senate, as some contemplated before, and they won't try to drum him out. They'll say that what's done is done, and all Republicans should join together to pass the party's agenda. And there's a good chance Moore will have that seat as long as he wants it.
How do I know that Republicans will accommodate themselves to Moore's presence? Because that's exactly what they did with President Trump.
You may recall that when the Access Hollywood tape was released last October, the party panicked, with members of Congress withdrawing their endorsements and many openly contemplating whether they could put someone else on the ticket. But Trump didn't waver for a second. He said it was just "locker room talk," and then when one woman after another went public with accusations of sexual harassment against him, he said they were all liars. When it became evident that he wasn't going down in flames, the party lined up behind him. He won, and Republicans have done their best to make everyone forget about it. Let bygones be bygones — we've got a tax cut to pass.
Someday you'll tell your grandchildren that a party's nominee for president of the United States was caught on tape bragging about his ability to commit sexual assault with impunity, and then a dozen women came forward and said yes, he did that to me, and he still got elected. When they hear the story, they'll say, "Nah, that can't be true," and you'll say, "No really, it actually happened."
The depressing lesson is clear: If you don't give any ground and don't express contrition, you can turn your personal scandal into a partisan fight, which will rally your party to your side. And no matter what you did, there's a good chance you'll win.