Is there anything a candidate can do that is so bad it’s worth losing a Senate seat or the White House over?
That’s the going question in modern politics. It’s particularly relevant now that the Washington Post has alleged that Republican Senate nominee Roy Moore sexually molested a 14-year-old girl in 1979. Many Republicans are calling for Moore to step aside if the charges are true. But there are others in the Republican party who say that this position is backwards — that it grants the Left a seat they wouldn’t otherwise win. Moore is up 11 points in the polls right now, and current Alabama law prohibits replacement of Moore on the ballot with sitting Senator Luther Strange.
So, what’s the limit on behavior?
We’ve learned over the past 20 years that there probably is none. Bill Clinton allegedly sexually harassed interns, allegedly sexually assaulted women, probably committed perjury? He’s the president, and so long as he supports abortions on demand, Nina Burleigh was “happy to give him a blowjob just to thank him.” Donald Trump was caught on tape stating that he could grab women by the genitals and get away with it due to his fame — and multiple women then accused him of sexual assault and harassment? He’s running against Hillary, and the choice is binary. Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) may be convicted of corruption for allegedly obtaining visas for a major supporter’s foreign sex liaisons? He’s a Democrat, and Democrats need that seat. Senator Teddy Kennedy (D-MA) left a woman to drown in a river? Hey, he’s a Kennedy, and we need him to push health care.
In fact, the only senators who have resigned under scandalous pressure since 1942 were Senators Harrison Williams in 1982, over Abscam allegations; Senator Bob Packwood (R-OR) amid sexual misconduct charges in 1995; and Senator John Ensign (R-NV), amid financial charges springing from an affair. No presidential candidate has stepped aside amid scandal.
Governors have a better record of stepping aside amidst impropriety, including Alabama Governor Robert Bentley, New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber, New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey, and Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, among others. That’s in part because lieutenant governors of the same party typically fill the role after a resignation. But that just shows that people resign when the political risks to their agenda are alleviated — not when those risks are increased.
And so the question stands: what would someone of your party need to do in order for you to put your political priorities aside in favor of standing against the immoral behavior of that candidate?
The biggest problem here is that we have a prisoner’s dilemma: if only one side is willing to abide by a standard, the other side wins. Imagine Teddy Kennedy running against Roy Moore, and they’re both hit with scandals. Now imagine the Republicans pull Moore but the Democrats leave Kennedy. A garbage person still occupies the seat, but the Republicans have forfeited. And it’s easy enough to use the lesser-of-two evils logic to justify pretty much anything.
Until people on all sides of the political aisle are willing to throw out candidates who act evilly, we’re likely to see the moral quality of candidates continue to decline. Opportunists on both sides will bash their opponents for sticking with nasty human beings, then go back to doing the same with their own allies. And the country gets worse and worse. Unless, that is, one party holds to a standard, and the American people reward that party for upholding that standard. Then everyone in every party would have an incentive to stand up for decent behavior. In the end, it’s not about what the parties are willing to tolerate. It’s about what the American people won’t. And right now, Americans seem willing to tolerate just about anything.