A sex scandal is no longer a hindrance to running for office—it’s a boon. That’s the message out of New York this week, where Anthony Weiner and Eliot Spitzer lead in the latest Quinnipiac University poll in their respective races for mayor and New York City controller. It’s name recognition that’s giving Weiner and Spitzer the early boost. As Mark Jacobson puts it in a profile of Weiner in New York, “It was a perfect modern irony: The sexting episode, the candidate’s self-described ‘worst moment, ’… had become the enabling vehicle of his increasingly storied comeback.”
With Republican Appalachian Trail-hiking Mark Sanford heading to Congress, it’s clear that Americans of both parties (and both genders) are willing to forgive extramarital dalliances, hooker-frequenting, and ill-advised sexting in a politician. Well, they’re willing to forgive it when the politician is a man. Would a female politician get the same comeback from a sex scandal as a male politician does?
This is more of a hypothetical question given that there aren’t obvious female equivalents to Weiner, Spitzer, and Sanford. (Is this because women are more discreet, fewer run for office, or just don’t cheat? I have no idea, though the latter is highly unlikely.) When current South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley was running for office in 2010, a conservative blogger claimed she had an affair with him. Haley denied the claim, which seemed specious anyway. She won the election, but there wasn’t really anything for voters to forgive.
Then there’s Krystal Ball, a Democrat who was running for Congress in an extremely red part of Virginia in 2010, when goofy, semi-sexual photos of the then-28-year-old surfaced, depicting her fellating a reindeer nose. Ball lost the election by a landslide. She probably would have lost by a landslide anyway—she was a relative unknown running against an incumbent in a district that went for Romney in 2012 and McCain in 2008—but giving a fake BJ to a dildo being worn as a nose did not help.
Since we’re dealing in the realm of speculation, I asked Jennifer Lawless, the director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University, whether she thought a female candidate would be forgiven as easily as a male candidate. She doesn’t think the road back from a sex scandal would be quite as smooth for Antonia Weiner as it has been for Anthony. “Women in politics are still judged by the manner in which they reconcile their personal and family responsibilities with their professional success,” Lawless said via email. “For men, there is clearer divide. So, poor judgment regarding family circumstances—such as adultery, a sex scandal, or other moral indiscretions—don't undermine men's professional achievements to the same extent they do women's.”
To be clear, I don’t think Spitzer, Sanford, or Weiner should be barred from public service because of what they did. (I don’t even think Weiner should have resigned in the first place. He didn’t break any laws.) I just want women to get the same second chances. I’m particularly happy to see Weiner forgiven, because as I’ve argued before, kids today are growing up with digital cameras and ready Internet access. If naughty pics in your past bar you from a bright future, most of the current generation of teenagers will be out of luck. To quote Dan Savage:
There's this realization that with all of us living so much of our personal and private lives online, and everybody carrying around a porn production studio in their pocket in the form of an iPhone, we will all one day be disqualified from public life if this is the standard.
As for Krystal Ball, she went from an also-ran local candidate to a national presence as an MSNBC host and commentator. She probably would not be a recognizable name now without those reindeer pics. It will be interesting to see if she tries again to make her way to Congress.