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Vitter likely secure, remains favorite for reelection

Republican Sen. David Vitter’s apology for his phone number turning up on a list of those revealed by a woman alleged to run a prostitution ring and his oblique confession to marital difficulties has touched off a lot of gum-flapping in Louisiana speculating on his political future. Much of it shows inferior judgment.

First, we have the musings of Democrat Gov. Kathleen Blanco, who feels the incident may have an impact on the state getting more resources to continue recovery from the hurricane disasters of 2005. She need not worry: the federal government will get upset when it finds out policy-makers are using such monies unwisely (which already has put Blanco herself into trouble) or if a policy-maker cannot be trusted to use his position of authority honestly (as indictments of Democrat Rep. William Jefferson indicate).

A few think Vitter should leave office, an argument of three parts. First, his stature will be reduced in the Senate by the incident. But history shows it takes more than just a sex scandal to reduce a senator’s power to insignificance. In what is no commonly referred to simply as “Chappaquiddick,” Democrat Sen. Edward Kennedy survived not just a potential sex scandal but charges he cowardly abandoned Mary Jo Kopechne in a submerged car where she drowned. The event happened almost 40 years ago but he has continued to be one of the most powerful senators and came close to winning the Democrat presidential nomination just seven years after.

Second and more simplistically, there are those arguing that such revelations make one unelectable so Vitter should clear out and make way for emergence of other GOP candidates to retain the seat in 2010 (presumably, Vitter would wait to reign until 2008 when Republican Rep. Bobby Jindal is highly likely to assume the governorship and appoint another Republican successor). But recent history shows that it takes more than just sordid affairs to sour the electorate on a popular incumbent.

Pres. Bill Clinton was widely known to have serially cheated in his marriage before and even during his first term in office, yet voters shrugged that off in 1992 and 1996. But had he been able to run in 2000, it likely would have been a different story because his affairs by then had turned into matters of forfeited trust. On separate matters federal judiciaries ruled that Clinton had broken the law while president, once in regards to the truthfulness under oath of testimony in court, and another regarding privacy laws. Or, as author Rich Lowry ably summarized Clinton’s behavior that led to his impeachment, “Bill Clinton, the president of the United States, had sex with an intern, perjured himself about it, suborned the perjury of someone else, and obstructed justice.” Vitter may share in the sex scandal portion of Clinton’s misdeeds, but he has not abused his office in any way as did Clinton.

But hitting much more home to evaluate this argument is that Vitter first got himself elected to Congress in a special election that came as a result of former Rep. Bob Livingston resigning after a sex scandal. But, again, there was much more to this than just extramarital escapades. Livingston’s episode involved a lobbyist where the relationship may have affected his treatment of legislation from his very important position atop the House Appropriations Committee. There may have been abuse of office there; this simply doesn’t apply to Vitter. It also didn’t look good that Livingston was about to become Speaker of the House and was the titular leader of the impeachment effort against Clinton than involved a sex scandal; no such political considerations compel Vitter.

The third tangent to the resignation argument is that Vitter acted illegally. However, two aspects about the incident give plenty of cover to Vitter. For one, he has not admitted to illegal acts and would be difficult if not impossible even to prosecute him for any, if he has committed any. Also, unlike Clinton’s case and possibly Livingston’s, if he committed any illegal acts they appeared not to impact his duties as a public servant in any way – the distinction which appears to have saved Kennedy’s career as well.

A related argument is that he faces impeachment. Aside from the obvious fact that surely more than one member of Congress might be at risk if suspected sexual wandering became the standard and so none in Congress will wish to pursue this course, this again misses the distinction that affairs as sordid as they may be do not disqualify one from office as long as they don’t involve abuse of office or of the taxpayers’ resources, in the mind of the majority of the public.

That’s why any punishment for Vitter would have to come from the ballot box. And the public in other instances has shown that, as long as he votes the way they want (he does for a majority in the state) and for the best public policy (his conservative voting record affirms that) that’s where they hold their real trust in him. (There’s also some evidence that there’s less here than meets the eye, because information about Vitter dallying with prostitutes already was out well in advance of the 2004 Senate race but his opponents declined making an issue of it.)

Three years provides much time for Vitter to continue to perform in this way to shore up any support which now may be flagging, as long as it is not demonstrated that his past misdeeds went beyond infidelity and that his repentance is sincere (meaning the behavior did stop some time ago). At this point, Vitter would be highly unlikely to leave office early, and must be considered the favorite win to reelection in 2010.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good summary. I can never understand why some conservatives enjoy eating their own children. Vitter's private actions have nothing to do with his public life and voting record. Mary Landrieu's voting record has supported and encouraged much more sordid personal behavior than Vitter's lapse in judgement ever will. As for Larry Flynt, isn't it strange that only Republicans seem to have sexual indiscretions? Perhaps Vitter would've fared better if he had lied about this affair in sworn despositions in civil and criminal matters to both the Department of Justice and State Courts! What hypocricy. I'll take Vitter's performance anytime in place of the populist lefties and RINO's that have been running this State for the last 50 years.