June will mark 10 years since then-Rep. Anthony Weiner resigned over a sexting scandal. What’s notable is not that politicians have long behaved badly on Twitter, as the New York Democrat did by sending a woman not his wife a sexually suggestive photograph, but that he quit at all. Weiner said the distraction the embarrassment caused to his constituents and family compelled him to quit Congress.
It raises the specter that Democrats will no longer want to sacrifice their political careers when those on the other side of the aisle aren’t doing so.
A decade on, Rep. Matt Gaetz is showing the shame game has changed considerably — for Republicans, at least. The Florida congressman, previously known as one of former President Donald Trump’s biggest boosters on Capitol Hill, has become a national figure in the most unflattering way since news broke last week that the Justice Department is investigating whether Gaetz “had a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old and paid for her to travel with him.”
Gaetz denies any wrongdoing and says he’s not resigning. And his insistence on riding out the bad headlines in office may be a good political bet. After all, recent political history has shown lawmakers can get away with it — for a while, at least — if they’re willing to stay defiant even as they endure daily revelations about their allegedly sordid personal lives.
Republican lawmakers — perhaps inspired by the approach of unrepentant party leader Trump, who made no apology for his alleged misdeeds — have increasingly lasted well beyond their political sell-by dates. Democratic politicians in the modern political era have more often caved in to public pressure.
But as Gaetz breaks new ground in sheer obstreperousness, it raises the specter that Democrats will no longer want to sacrifice their political careers when those on the other side of the aisle aren’t doing so. Indeed, it might be safe to say that shame no longer has a place in American political life.
Gaetz is under investigation by the Justice Department over the allegations of a relationship with the 17-year-old girl, and that he paid for her travel across state lines. The probe is reportedly linked to a broader investigation of a Gaetz political ally, former Seminole County, Florida, tax collector Joel Greenberg, who was indicted in 2020 on sex trafficking charges and has pleaded not guilty.
In an op-ed Monday in the Washington Examiner, Gaetz characterized himself as a victim. “Folks won’t be surprised that bizarre claims are being made about me shortly after I decided to take on the most powerful institutions in the Beltway,” he wrote.
The response was similar, if less self-righteous, from scandal-ridden Republican House members such as Duncan D. Hunter of California and Chris Collins of New York. Both stayed in office for more than a year after federal indictments in 2018 — Hunter accused of misusing campaign funds and Collins accused of insider trading and lying to the FBI — before quitting upon reaching plea agreements with federal prosecutors. They were then spared prison time after being pardoned by Trump in his waning weeks in office.
While Republicans made some half-hearted attempts to push Hunter and Collins to do the right thing (their party leader stripped away their committee assignments, effectively giving the lawmakers little to do), Trump was teaching a master class on political shamelessness, starting with fall 2016 “Access Hollywood” tape revelations depicting the one-time “Apprentice” star boasting of sexual misbehavior.
Trump consistently refused to bow to scandal. He dismissed the episode as “locker room talk” and went on to score one of the biggest upsets in American political history. A string of allegations over other sexual indiscretions, business fraud, campaign finance violations and fomenting insurrection after the 2020 election did nothing to shake him.
In Gaetz’s case, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy called the initial allegations about sex with a minor “serious” and said Gaetz would lose his committee assignments if indicted. But McCarthy has not insisted Gaetz resign.
It’s been a different story for Democrats. Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota announced his resignation in December 2017 after several women leveled allegations of sexual misconduct from years earlier, though nothing that prompted legal charges. Nonetheless, lawmakers from his own party pressured him to step aside even before there were results from a preliminary probe by the Senate Ethics Committee — which Franken had said he welcomed.
Then there’s former Rep. Katie Hill, a California Democrat who resigned in October 2019 after a conservative blog published a report on an alleged affair with a staff member, which she denied. That was followed by the Daily Mail publishing nude photos of Hill with her estranged husband and a different staff member. Hill quickly came under pressure to resign from party colleagues — and did so. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Hill had made the right move in stepping down.
Hill and Gaetz once made for an unlikely pair of congressional friends. Gaetz was about the only Republican to defend her in fall 2019 when the photos emerged. Amid the news reports about investigations of Gaetz, though, Hill has become a critic. “If there is even a fraction of truth to these reports, he should resign immediately,” Hill wrote in Vanity Fair on Monday.
Franken, for his part, has said he regrets bowing out so quickly. And if one political party’s members don’t have to pay a price for scandal simply by refusing to be cowed by it, won’t that course become more attractive to their counterparts who are under fire?
That might be part of why we’re seeing New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo stay so defiant in the face of not one but three brewing scandals — over allegations of sexual harassment by multiple staff members, of concealing the true extent of nursing home deaths due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and of favoring friends and family members for Covid-19 testing access.
During these months of turmoil, Cuomo’s taken a page from the GOP playbook: He’s brushed off calls for his resignation from most of New York’s Democratic congressional members even as he faces an impeachment probe by the state Legislature and an investigation by state Attorney General Letitia James over the sexual harassment allegations.
At the same time, legislators don’t seem in a hurry to consider impeachment, and after initial calls to resign by Democratic elected officials, there’s largely been radio silence. For now, the governor’s wait-it-out strategy is working.
For Gaetz, the fact that he’s made it this far suggests that not succumbing to public pressure is likely the best approach politically.
To be sure, this isn’t to say that until now, all recent Democratic officeholders have adopted a statesmanlike pose in voluntarily leaving the public stage amid political scandal. Most significantly, President Bill Clinton lied to the nation about his affair with a White House intern Monica Lewinsky, only admitting it seven months later once Lewinsky had taken an immunity deal with federal prosecutors and detailed their past affair. By that time, though, the worst of any public opinion storm over Clinton’s behavior had passed, and he won acquittal in his Senate impeachment trial the following February amid record approval ratings.
Clinton, however, is largely an exception to the rule in Democratic politics. And until the Trump years, there were a clutch of scandal-plagued GOP members who resigned as Democrats did, even if in fewer numbers.
As for Gaetz, the fact that he’s made it this far suggests that not succumbing to public pressure is likely the best approach politically. New blasts of breaking news will inevitably wash Gaetz out of the headlines, as has happened with Cuomo.
It’s enough to make even Anthony Weiner blush.