Writing in Slate, Chris Beam tries to explain what it is that causes some politicians to survive infidelity scandals while others lose out. He says “Politicians pay a price only when they commit ‘infidelity plus'” of which “the most common variety is infidelity plus deceit.” He also says that “Another exception is infidelity plus crime.”
I think that this is wrong. What you need to do to survive infidelity is (a) be an incumbent and (b) don’t quit! David Vitter cheated on his wife with a prostitute. That’s a crime. Bill Clinton cheated on his wife with an intern, and then he lied about it. But they both survived. The key difference between them and Elliot Spitzer is that Spitzer resigned. As I’ve written before the key thing any politician under attack needs to do is get his co-partisans on his side. When scandal breaks, there’s naturally going to be some sentiment that the wrongdoer ought to step down for the good of the party. And maybe he should! But if he’s able to clearly signal that he won’t then suddenly everyone else needs to defend you for the good of the party. And elite signaling is very important in politics. If your copartisans are all defending you, then the controversy becomes just another example of partisan politics. That doesn’t guarantee victory, but it does mean that if the economy’s at your back (Clinton) or you have a safe seat (Vitter) that you’re fine.
Eliot Spitzer is, as we speak, fully rehabilitated in American society and hosts a mainstream television show. America will forgive a lot. But if you quit, you can’t survive.