Opinion

Why would Matt Gaetz resign?

How politicians learned to overcome decency and power through their sex scandals

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) may be in trouble, but he isn't running away. The Florida Republican is reportedly under investigation for transporting a 17-year-old girl across state lines to have sex. That news led to allegations he has shown nude photos of his purported sex partners to colleagues on the floor of the House of Representatives — behavior that may not be illegal but (if true) is certainly dishonorable, gross, and wrong. Predictably, there have been calls for Gaetz to resign. Just as predictably, he has dismissed those demands.

Why would he quit?

The last few years have taught us that public officials in America can power through just about any revelations of impropriety simply by refusing to go away — and that it is even possible to reach new heights of power after enduring a season of humiliation. Donald Trump became president after he was caught on video bragging about sexual assault and stayed in office for four years despite allegations from a number of women. Bill Clinton survived impeachment after getting caught lying about his affair in the Oval Office and left office with extraordinarily high approval ratings. Similarly, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) is betting that he can similarly survive mounting allegations of sexual harassment. He may not be wrong.

Sex scandals have been part and parcel of America's political culture, going all the way back to the Founders. Usually, getting caught meant the end of one's political career. Alexander Hamilton's days in service came to a close when his affair with Maria Reynolds became public. Similarly, Gary Hart's presidential ambitions foundered in 1987 when Donna Rice sat on his lap aboard the aptly named Monkey Business. New York Rep. Andrew Weiner resigned his seat after a suggestive photo he sent via Twitter became news; Weiner later attempted to run for New York mayor, only to be taken down by new revelations that landed him in prison.

There have been exceptions, of course. Grover Cleveland won the presidency in 1884 even though he had fathered a child out of wedlock. And before he was elected to the White House in 1992, Clinton went on 60 Minutes to vaguely admit to "causing pain in my marriage." More often, though, high-profile politicians gained and held onto power by keeping their peccadilloes out of the papers until after their careers were over.

Expectations have obviously changed.

We're nearly a half-century removed from the heady days of the Sexual Revolution — Americans no longer place many taboos on their own behavior or that of their neighbors, so they no longer have much expectation that their leaders will abide by strict codes of personal sexual conduct. Indeed, former Vice President Mike Pence was widely mocked and criticized for refusing to ever be alone in a room with women who weren't his wife. It is more difficult to have a sex scandal when consensual sex itself is no longer treated as a scandal. Hypocrisy isn't even that big a deal anymore. The scandals that remain generally involve abuse of power, funny accounting, the age of consent, or some other violation of federal or state law.

Polarization has accelerated this shift. When Clinton's Oval Office affair with Monica Lewinsky came to light in 1998, a number of newspapers called for him to resign from office, but Democrats mostly circled the wagons. (There were some notable exceptions.) They believed, not unreasonably, that Republicans had spent years searching for any scandal they could drum up to force Clinton's early retirement. More recently, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) resigned in the wake of sexual harassment allegations — but a number of Democrats now regret his departure, and the faltering performance of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) during the 2020 presidential primaries was due in part to her now-unpopular role in pressuring Franken to leave office. Gillibrand, notably, was slow to call for Cuomo's resignation during his recent travails.

This isn't just a Democratic trend, though. When the Access Hollywood tape emerged in 2016, some Republicans openly criticized Trump, then found themselves on the outs when he won the presidency anyway. Trump, of course, went on to endorse Roy Moore in Alabama's 2017 Senate race. Moore just barely lost that election, despite allegations he had behaved improperly with teen girls. These days, party matters more than propriety.

Something has been lost in this whole process. The notion that virtue or decency matters in public life or personal conduct has been largely displaced by “Flight 93 Election” thinking that ignores those qualities as luxuries to be abandoned in a political war against one's political rivals. A politician who missteps can always blame “cancel culture” or shadowy conspiracies for their misfortune. Short of a criminal conviction, only shame would ever compel an official to give up their power. There is precious little of that left in politics. There is no use for it. Which is why there is little reason to expect that Matt Gaetz or Andrew Cuomo will resign anytime soon — not, at least, until something better comes along.

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