Prostitutes and the Audacity Gap.

There are certain things we expect of politicians. They're supposed to kiss babies, and wear flag pins, and care deeply about whatever is most important to the person they are talking to at a particular moment. Also, when they get caught with hookers, they're supposed to slink off shamefacedly, never to be heard from again.

But it doesn't have to be that way, as probably soon-to-be-reelected Sen. David Vitter has shown us. Matt Yglesias makes the contrast with Eliot Spitzer:

I think the contrasting fates of Spitzer and guys like Clinton or Senator David Vitter (R-LA) shows that Spitzer’s problem was much simpler than that—he resigned. When a reasonably popular public official is hit with a scandal of a personal nature, the natural immediate first reaction of his same-party colleagues is to want to get rid of him. After all, no reason this guy should be a millstone around all of our necks. That leads to an initial torrent of criticism from friendly-ish sources and a wave of pressure to resign. But if you resist that first wave, apologizing for your conduct but refusing to apologize for your years of public service and highlighting the pernicious special interests who’d love to see you brought low, you basically flip the dynamic. Now you’re definitely going to be a millstone around everyone’s necks so the question becomes how heavy a stone?

Suddenly all your same-party colleagues have an incentive to defend you and to attack your enemies. Suddenly an incumbent Republican in Louisiana is just another guy with a safe seat. An incumbent President presiding over an economic boom is super-popular. And I bet an incumbent Democratic governor in New York could have cruised to re-election.

The other element in this is time. When you're in the midst of a scandal, it probably seems like something you can never escape, but if you have the guts to stick around, you never know what will happen. When his visits to prostitutes were revealed three years ago, Vitter probably said, "I've got three years to go in my term. Louisiana is a conservative state. Who knows what will happen?" Lo and behold, he happened to come up for re-election in a year when Republicans are at a huge advantage. Spitzer had only been governor of New York for a little over a year when his prostitution scandal erupted. He would have had three more years to give people reasons to re-elect him, and given the fact that the Republican Party in New York is populated by highly skilled statesmen like Carl Paladino, he probably would have won.

While there are certainly exceptions, and every case has its unique particularities, I think this is in significant part a contrast in the way Democrats and Republicans tend to operate. The question, "What if people criticize us?" is one that Democrats ask a lot. Republicans are much more likely to say, "Screw it -- full speed ahead." I call this the audacity gap, and though it has existed for a long time, it really came to full fruition in the post-election controversy in 2000, when Republicans got away with all manner of things -- like starting a riot to shut down voting in one county, or the abominable Bush v. Gore Supreme Court decision itself -- about which one might have said, "They'd never do that." But they did, and they got away with it. So they learned a lesson.

-- Paul Waldman

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