Pity the politician, enmeshed in a sex scandal, who can't decide, should I stay, or should I go?
For the moment, GOP Senate candidate Roy Moore of Alabama is defiantly holding on. Even as party leaders abandon him after accusations that he molested a 14-year-old and a 16-year-old girl when he was a single man in his 30s, Moore apparently hopes voters will feel otherwise come the Dec. 12 special election.
And why should he not? Voters send confusing signals about how much character matters in a politician. History tells us that men can get away with many forms of sexual transgression and still get elected. Moore may be gambling that he'll ride out the initial scandal storm and be one of the fortunate ones.
Of course, not all political sex scandals are made equal. The accusations about Moore are repulsive: hanging around the Gadsden Mall in Alabama or a local restaurant, meeting teenage girls, and admittedly dating women so young he had to ask their moms' permission. If he stays in the race and is elected, his candidacy would significantly redraw the line of what's acceptable behavior for public figures.
Also, and this is important, Moore has denied abusing the women. In the absence of a criminal or Senate ethics committee investigation, all we have to go on are the women's words against his.
One politician who remained electable, to the surprise of many, was Rep. Mark Sanford, South Carolina's 1st District representative in the U.S. House. Sanford is the former governor of that state who disappeared for a week in 2009, out of contact with his family or security detail, saying he had been hiking the Appalachian Trail. In fact, he had been visiting his Argentine lover. He called her his "soul mate" in the immediate aftermath, divorced his wife of 20 years, was elected to serve in Washington in 2013 and ran unopposed in 2014.
Also there's David Vitter, a Louisiana Republican who spoke to teenagers about abstinence before marriage, until it was disclosed that he had been a client of "D.C. Madam" Deborah Jeane Palfrey. Like Vitter, Moore burnishes "conservative Christian" credentials. Vitter was re-elected, post-scandal, to the U.S. Senate.
Disgraced Congressman Anthony Weiner had a brief shot at a second political life when he ran for New York City mayor in 2013, until a new accuser began speaking about his sexting to the media. Voters elected Bill Clinton president in 1992, after Gennifer Flowers claimed they had had a long-time affair; Clinton denied it. And, of course, voters awarded the highest prize in politics last year to Donald Trump, an admitted playboy, adulterer and accused assaulter.
Following his video about grabbing women's genitals and allegations of sexual harassment, which Trump denies, many in the GOP distanced themselves from him, thinking his chances of winning were hopeless.
Now, many senior Republicans say Moore should drop out of his Senate race. If he stays in, his fate will lie not with them but with Alabama voters. Will they stretch their character requirements to embrace an alleged predator?
Not that long ago, American politicians didn't have a prayer if they were even divorced. In 1980, Ted Kennedy dragged his wife Joan on the presidential campaign trail, even though it meant she would have to respond to embarrassing questions about her battles with alcoholism. Her presence helped tamp down criticism partly stemming from the Chappaquiddick controversy.
Given time, divorce, adultery, hypocrisy and even suspected assault are flaws voters have overlooked. It will be a sad day when and if we enlarge that circle to include molesting adolescents.