Were I a betting man, I would take even odds that Sen. John Ensign of Nevada survives this week's admission that he had an affair with a woman on his staff, who is married to a man on his staff. Sordid, yes -- but not as politically damaging as it once was. There has been so much recent history of this kind of behavior that voters seem to be already factoring in the potential for personal indiscretion in how they assess politicians. The list of rehabilitated philanderers is long, with Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich right at the top. Because he got busted by reporters, because he may be denying his own kid, because he still comes across as a little too slick, it may take a while longer, but I suspect that John Edwards is probably on his way to rehabilitation, too. Among sitting senators, there is at least one other openly contrite adulterer, David Vitter, who is probably doing the I'm-so-glad-it's-no-longer-me dance right now.
Indeed, given the current circumstances, the Ensign affair has the potential to do more long-term political damage to his party than to the senator himself. At a time when the Republican Party is in shambles and trying desperately to restore its credibility with the American people, the Ensign episode is distracting at the very least. It also reinforces the notion that the GOP does not have its act together. While Republicans might want to be crafting an alternative to the president's health-care initiative, they are instead talking about Ensign’s resignation from his Senate leadership post and what it means for the party going forward.
The bottom line is that while Ensign is not on the ballot for another four years, Republicans are worried and, with good reason, that their losing streak that began in 2006 will continue in 2010, and Ensign does not help their cause.
"He’s accepted responsibility for his actions and apologized to his family and constituents," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement. "He offered, and I accepted, his resignation as chairman of the Policy Committee." That is just a bad way to start the week.
Republicans lost six Senate seats in 2006, along with eight more in 2008 when Ensign headed the campaign committee. The GOP has not, so far, fixed any of the problems that caused that hemorrhaging. There is no new message, no new party face, no real challenge to President Barack Obama, and no cogent explanation about how the party intends to deal with the country's serious problems.
The 2010 midterm elections are looming, and Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, who replaced Ensign as head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, isn't setting the expectations bar too high. "Success would be stemming the tide [of losses]," he recently told reporters at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast.
The Ensign revelation doesn't have quite the same last-straw quality of the Mark Foley scandal that severely hurt Republicans in the run up to the 2006 midterms. But it may strike voters as being equally tiresome, and it could reduce the chances that they will listen to anything Republicans have to say.
This may be particularly true in Ensign’s home state of Nevada, where the incumbent Republican governor is in the middle of a very nasty, very public divorce. Dawn Gibbons, the wife of Gov. Jim Gibbons, is accusing him of having two affairs with women, whose names have been made public by the unsealing of the divorce proceedings records.
The sordid personal distractions create exactly the kind of situation in which voters just simply decide not to bother with a party that seems disorganized and diverted from the tasks at hand.
But despite all the trouble Ensign could cause Republicans, he is likely to survive just fine, in part because he handled the theatrics of the political apology so well this week. He admitted to the indiscretion, he seemed genuinely sorry about it, and he did not try to make excuses. "Last year I had an affair," he began. No "improper relationship" euphemisms. He seemed to be coming clean.
While the standard initial reaction to the Ensign news will include the requisite mention that the affair has hurt his presidential prospects in 2012, Ensign will benefit from the overwhelming desire among Americans to keeps this kind of personal infraction private. There are not likely to be any serious demands that he resign, and if he chooses to stay in the Senate, the political climate will almost certainly be completely different by the time he is up for re-election.
Ensign won his last election with 55 percent of the vote, and betting against his re-election is not a good gamble. Already, his defenders are putting the affair in a remarkably favorable context. This week, the Las Vegas Journal-Review, Nevada's largest newspaper, defended Ensign as a strong voice for the conservative, limited-government values that it believes the country needs. The Journal-Review blamed the revelations of the affair on the fact that Ensign was thinking about running for president, and he got smacked by opposition researchers. The paper immediately went on the offensive:
Despite the predictable cries of "hypocrisy" from leftists who are only spared the label because so little is expected of them, it's worth pointing out that this is a personal matter -- not the kind of betrayal of official trust Democrats demonstrate every time they sacrifice the public welfare to satiate their paymasters, the trial lawyers or the public employee unions.
The editorial concluded: "Sen. Ensign remains one of the more principled spokesmen now on the Washington stage for a government limited in size and intrusiveness into our lives. It is to be hoped he does not back down for a single day from that role, which is the job Nevadans elected him to do, no matter what his personal imperfections."
With defenders like that, Ensign could be completely rebuilt in a matter of months.
Ensign and his wife released a statement saying that, in the time since the affair ended, they have worked hard on their relationship and that today their marriage is stronger than ever. Republicans can’t say the same about their party.