The Tricky Business of Judging Politicians

Charlie Cook New
February 8, 2019

My hesitation to write about Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam is based on a feeling that his resignation might come at any moment, before this column sees the light of day. While I don’t think I have ever met him, he seems like a decent guy and I doubt he is a racist, but wearing blackface—whether in a medical-school yearbook picture or in a dance contest imitating Michael Jackson while doing the moonwalk—or for that matter, a Ku Klux Klan hood or robe, is a no-fly zone in American politics in general and the Democratic Party in particular. Northam now says that he is not in the picture of a person in blackface and another in a KKK robe, but the hesitation in issuing a denial was telling in and of itself.

While it is possible that he could simply refuse to resign and attempt to ride it out, it certainly seems there is little if any way he could effectively govern after this disclosure. With governors in Virginia not allowed to run for reelection after serving a full term, they instantly become lame ducks, marginalizing their effectiveness from the beginning. Northam was never likely to get much support from Republicans in the legislature, and now Democrats would be, to put it kindly, hesitant to embrace or support him. They are certainly not likely to expend much of their own political capital on his behalf.

Yes, President Clinton was able to serve the remainder of his term after the Monica Lewinsky scandal, but he had the benefit of an enormous reservoir of support within his party, plus an extraordinary amount of political talent and plenty of chutzpah. At least until the #MeToo movement caught up with him, Clinton had become the patron saint of politicians facing seemingly career-ending revelations and surviving. Clinton often seemed to have a Teflon coating, a notable contrast with his wife Hillary Clinton, who seemed to be covered in Velcro. Maybe it is sexism, in part that different rules seemed to apply to her than him, though I wonder if controversy would stick to every woman similarly situated.

If Democrats are going to jump on any Republican at the first hint of racism, they have to police their own ranks. The fact that this is happening in the hours leading up to rising Democratic star Stacey Abrams's scheduled response to President Trump’s State of the Union Address simply punctuates this point. This is a no-brainer. At this column’s writing, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, next in line to be governor should Northam step aside, was denying an allegation of sexual assault that emerged Monday, throwing gasoline on an already highly combustible situation.

There is a legitimate debate over what misdeeds are the political equivalent of misdemeanors and ought to be survivable, which ones are political felonies and should be dealt with in a more punitive way, and which ones are in effect, political capital offenses. And is there a statute of limitations, or does that depend on the severity of the offense?

There are some who say Democrats engaged in a rush to judgment after embarrassing photographs emerged of Al Franken pretending to fondle a sleeping woman before he was elected to the Senate, and other allegations of boorish behavior. While the picture was unquestionably sophomoric, poor judgment, and a very weak attempt at humor, how did that fall on the scale of sexual-harassment cases? How close does something have to be to Harvey Weinstein? The point of this is not to relitigate the Franken kerfuffle but to consider where the lines are. Exactly when does a widespread consensus view of party leaders stop and mob rule take over? Was Franken thrown under a bus, or was that handled right?

A more recent case was the decision of House Republicans to strip Rep. Steve King of his committee assignments after comments he made that were widely seen as racist. This was more the culmination of multiple embarrassments that King had caused the House and his party. After the 2018 midterms, there seemed to be no more tolerance of King’s comments by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. In this case, it was a party leader deciding that it was a political felony, suggesting where the exit doors are but not precisely pushing the offender out the door. More decisively, Republicans in the Missouri legislature effectively pushed then-Gov. Eric Greitens out of office last year after inappropriate and probably illegal behavior on his part.

Few things are as explosive in our society and in politics as gender and race. When it comes to transgressions, the idea of “zero tolerance” effectively means the suspension of judgment and reason, is unnecessarily binary, and has, often in school settings, resulted in punishments that did not necessarily fit the severity of an offense. But these are conversations that need to occur—among political leaders, in newsrooms, and throughout society.

This story was originally published on nationaljournal.com on February 5, 2019