In an editorial board interview this week with the Washington Examiner, Sen. Ted Cruz., R-Texas, referred to the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment scandal and coined the well-known maxim that politics is Hollywood for ugly people.
The resemblance is real enough. “You get men and women with positions of power,” Cruz said. “Sometimes cloaked in relative anonymity, in a workplace where the [power differential] between them and their employees is significant … And a culture that tells too many politicians they can do nothing wrong. Being a senator, you go to parties, and all your jokes are funny. Suddenly, you’re handsome and witty and wise. That culture, unfortunately, encourages abuse of power. And for a long time, there were no significant efforts to hold people accountable for that.”
This fact is underscored by two cases within the GOP's Pennsylvania delegation.
Former Rep. Tim Murphy resigned his seat in October after his extramarital affair became public, low-lighted by the detail that he encouraged his mistress to have an abortion when she suspected she was pregnant with his child.
Rep. Pat Meehan is in the spotlight too now, because he stands accused of harassing a former staffer whom the married congressman called his "soulmate."
These are personal misdeeds, some might say, and private lives should not affect our judgment of suitability for public office. But this casuistry does not bear scrutiny. We know that for both men, their compromised morality led to compromised policy positions.
Meehan seems to have changed his position on Obamacare to please his "soulmate," writing her a self-congratulatory note about his decision to vote against Obamacare repeal last year. “As I walked this evening and glanced over at the White House I smiled at the irony that on a day that I had to say ‘no’ to the president and to the speaker of the House, I got to say ‘yes’ to you,” Meehan wrote the woman on May 4, the day of that vote.
Murphy's corruption was worse. He had been a pro-life Republican but, according to his mistress, he encouraged her to abort their baby when she became pregnant. “You have zero issue posting your pro-life stance all over the place,” Murphy’s lover wrote him last year, “when you had no issue asking me to abort our unborn child just last week when we thought that was one of the options.”
Murphy responded dutifully toward her, less dutifully toward voters who had elected and re-elected him so many times, when he pledged to stop posting pro-life opinions. In other words, he adjusted his public stance on a fundamental issue when his private folly made that expedient.
Despite the public exposure of this incident, Murphy believed he could avoid resigning his seat, at least until House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., forced him out. Until Thursday, when Meehan announced his retirement, he acted as if he wanted to stay in Congress anyway. Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, found to be a serial harasser, has refused to resign.
Those old enough to remember the 2006 election might recognize a pattern. It was revealed in late 2005 that Rep. Don Sherwood, another married Pennsylvania Republican, had received a visit from the police in 2004 at his Washington apartment after allegedly choking his mistress, a charge he denied. He refused to drop out after the incident became public knowledge, but then lost his heavily Republican seat to a Democrat.
There was, in 2006, a feeling that the Republican Party had betrayed its voters and deserved to lose. Its members, in control of Washington, were feeding at the trough of actual criminals in the lobbying business and enjoying other perks of power. That included not only illicit sexual affairs, but also the filthy lucre of bribery and theft. (Remember Reps. Duke Cunningham, R-Calif., and Rick Renzi, R-Ariz.?)
The election result that year should stand as a testament to the fact that character matters to voters, even if to no one else. In 2006, Republican failures of character led directly to a decade of terrible Democratic ideas dominating the federal government. Moral rot had eaten away at the majority, which was then demolished by a Democratic wave.
A pornographic movie star who goes by the stage name Stormy Daniels says she had an affair with President Trump during his current marriage. The Wall Street Journal reported that just before the 2016 election, Trump's lawyer paid her $130,000 in exchange for her silence.
Cavorting with porn stars, cheating on one's wife, and paying a woman for her silence are all damning accusations, and the White House hasn't done anything to raise doubt about them.
Christian conservative leaders such as Tony Perkins say we ought to deal with it and give Trump a "do-over" because he has nominated pro-life judges and "the most conservative party platform ever." This echoes a widespread view that Trump's unconservative personal life doesn't matter if his policies are conservative.
When we asked Cruz whether Trump deserved a mulligan, he demurred, saying, "I’ve got nothing to say on that. I will leave those issues and those topics to somebody else. My focus is tax reform, reg reform, Obamacare, judges, deliver on promises."
This is reasonable. Cruz's deliberate and carefully articulated refusal to comment is a way of indicating distaste without explicit condemnation, which would damage him and the president whose policies he wants to promote. No one is obliged to condemn other people's sins. Perkins and Cruz may also, in good conscience, decide that Trump's sins are outweighed by crucial policy considerations. But what conservative politicians and pundits do have an obligation to do, however, is to recognize that character, including the president's, matters a lot. And they should never say it doesn't.
Our Founders knew that the character of its leaders was crucially important. In 2006, voters showed they know it too. They can decide policy matters are more important. We hope they do. But let no one fool themselves that character does not count.