Why Do Politicians Always Get Second Chances?

Normal people who screw up at work or in their personal lives – be it an ethical transgression, general selfishness, or other direct failure – expect to be fired, cut off socially, or face other serious consequences that alter their lives.    But politicians (and other rich and famous people more broadly) always seem to get another chance.  And amazingly, the public usually finds a way to encourage or reward this kind of behavior.  The “fall, apology, redemption” story in politics is almost as common as the sappy campaign scripts about humble origins and hard work among the political one percent.  Think Mark Sanford, David Vitter, Eliot Spitzer, Barney Frank, and Bill Clinton – none of them seem to be doing too bad in their personal and professional lives after humiliating scandals.

The most recent case in point is Anthony Weiner, the former congressman who resigned after sending sexually explicit pictures of himself to young women over Twitter and then denying he’d done any such thing before admitting his moral failure:  “I have not been honest with myself, my family, my constituents, my friends and supporters and the media.”

One would think that a sexting scandal might permanently end or at least seriously cripple someone’s political future.  But after a carefully orchestrated rollout into the public limelight last weekend, Weiner has sent some pretty strong signals that he’s ready to get back into the ring.  And lo and behold, it looks like New Yorkers may be open to his Phoenix-like return to politics.  An NBC News/Marist poll out this week shows Weiner in second place in the Democratic mayoral primary, trailing the front-runner and current Speaker of the NYC City Council, Christine Quinn, 26 to 15 percent. 

If in fact Weiner is able to rehabilitate his political fortunes — and that’s far from given — one might ask whether voters today have any objective moral or ethical standards that they use to evaluate politicians.  Forgiveness and second chances play a large role in our personal and religious lives, but when it comes to politics, there’s always someone else to vote for or support, so why not have some stronger standards of accountability?

Obviously, not every fallen leader asks for or expects a real second chance in politics and not all second act attempts end up successful.  So what types of politicians are likely to fail to make it out from under the disgrace of scandal?  Here’s a partial taxonomy:

1. Politicians who are excessively hypocritical. People who lecture others on how to live – or demonize entire groups of people such as those who are divorced or are in same sex relationships – and then engage in the same behavior they seek to condemn often do not make it out.  A little hypocrisy can be overlooked but extreme hypocrisy turns off lots of people.  Examples here include politicians like Larry Craig, a famous gay-basher who was caught soliciting sex in a men’s bathroom in the Minneapolis airport, and Newt Gingrich, a converted Catholic and self-described keeper of family values who’s been divorced multiple times.

2. Politicians who are predatory, narcissistic, or generally just creepy.  When some real dark side of a politician’s life comes out, they should not expect to be welcomed back by voters anytime soon.  Sen. John Edwards, who fathered a child with a campaign videographer and then denied it to his dying wife, or former IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who eventually settled a civil suit for sexually assaulting a maid in a New York hotel, are obvious examples of this maxim.

3. Politicians who fleece or otherwise disparage the disadvantaged. Voters for the most part think politicians occupy a lower rung of human development or a special ring of hell, but there’s nothing more disgusting than politicians who take advantage of the poor or denigrate the less fortunate.  Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon, who was forced to resign after stealing gift cards for the poor, is one such example.  Mitt Romney is another.

4. Politicians who express latent racism or misogyny. People don’t look to most politicians for guidance on how to understand a multi-racial, multi-ethnic society.  But they do expect them to be self-aware enough not to blurt out their own intolerant or repugnant views on the public stage.  Sen. George Allen, of “macaca” fame, and Rep. Todd Akin, of “legitimate rape” infamy, fall into this category.

5. Politicians who are outright corrupt. Not everyone caught for embezzlement or other fraud gets drummed out of the political circle, but in general politicians who take money directly or get sent to jail for other corrupt behavior generally don’t make it back.  Rep. Duke Cunningham, who pleaded guilty to bribery, mail and wire fraud, and tax evasion, and Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, convicted on racketeering and extortion charges for kickback schemes, are notable examples. 

Three other general rules of thumb help to explain how some politicians crawl back into the limelight while others do not: First, those involved in straight forward sex scandals tend to be forgiven.  Second, political partisans tend to overlook the scandals and failures of politicians from their own party.  And third, political leaders whose accomplishments far outweigh their failures occupy a much stronger place in the public’s heart than those without these attributes.  These three rules help to explain how Bill Clinton remains one of the most popular politicians in America despite his behavior in office.

Will these factors allow Anthony Weiner to regain his public life?  Given the history of political scandals, it will depend on where NY Democrats come down on his transgression (too narcissistic and creepy?) and what they think about his accomplishments (did he promote good policies and leadership?).