So much for voters being poised to show that they don’t care about sex scandals anymore.
Forget about former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford’s surprise May election to the House of Representatives despite the sex scandal stemming from his lie about hiking on the “Appalachian trail” rather than being in Latin America visiting his girlfriend. This year voters made humiliating examples of the Three Stooges of sex scandals -- Bob Filner, Elliot Spitzer and Anthony Weiner - and politicians everywhere, beware.
Voters sent a strong message that said: “You can run again and we might give you a second look, but if you mess up again we won’t want you and if we have someone who hasn’t messed up before we’ll probably pick them over you no matter what you say. Give it your best shot -- but don’t quit your day job.”
At one point it seemed each of the three would survive, but their political storms proved to have been hurricanes, leaving shattered political dreams.
Sanford had indeed survived. He was seriously mentioned as a likely contender for the 2012 Republican Presidential nomination, had headed the Republican Governor’s Association and had been praised by Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele as someone to watch. Sanford’s extra marital affair ended the buzz, impeachment efforts failed, and he finished his term in disgrace in January 2011.
Still, his Appalachian trail fiasco left a narrow enough path for a comeback trail. Perhaps it’s because his biblical and political sin was more accessible to many Americans: he seemed to clearly mean it when he said that Argentian María Belén Chapu was the love of his life, and later confirmed it when he married her. His scandal wasn’t terribly quirky, or shocking, or messy -- like former North Carolina’ Senator John Edwards’ affair while Edwards wife had terminal cancer.
Many voters wouldn’t do what Sanford did, but they might understand how he felt, and why he did what he did.
Spitzer, Filner and Weiner weren’t as lucky.
Until he lost the New York City Comptroller nomination to Scott Stringer in early September in what The Huffington Post called “a stunning rebuke,” Spitzer seemed destined to become the next Mark Sanford. Early polls showed the former governor who had resigned in the face of a prostitution scandal had a 19 point lead. By election day polls narrowed: Stringer had hit him on the poor judgment shown by Sptizer’s private stimulus program for pricy call girls, and his refusal to turn over his tax returns.
San Diego Mayor Bob Filner probably could have survived one allegation of sexual harassment and perhaps even a lawsuit litigated by Gloria Allred. But he couldn’t survive the virtual parade of respected San Diego women stepping forward to accuse him in often graphic detail of being a serial sexual harasser. He became a major national punch line for comedians, viral satires, and target for bloggers taking cheap shots. (I’ll NEVER do that even if he starts a rump roast company...). Polls showed voters, Democrats and Republicans wanting him out ASAP and he resigned.
But the worse humiliation was reserved for former Rep. Anthony Weiner whose “sexting” made his name branding in more ways one. He was ahead in his race for the Democratic mayoral nomination until it was revealed he had sexted again. After over-the-top behavior, verbal abuse from voters, and a shameful badgering interview by MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell seemingly doing a Bill O’Reilly impression, Weiner ended the race with just 5 percent - and gave the finger to a reporter as his exit gesture. Just as voters had given theirs to him.
Filner, Spitzer and Weiner later earned an honor: they were listed in Shalom Life’s Top 10 Jewish Scandals list.
The good news? 2013’s voters signaled there are limits in American politics. And future politicians can -- and will -- ignore them. At their political careers’ serious risk.
Joe Gandelman is a veteran journalist who wrote for newspapers overseas and in the United States. He has appeared on cable news show political panels and is Editor-in-Chief of The Moderate Voice, an Internet hub for independents, centrists and moderates. He also writes for The Week’s online edition. CNN’s John Avlon named him as one of the top 25 Centrists Columnists and Commentators. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.