The character issue is back, leaving voters wondering anew if their leaders can be trusted and, in all likelihood, intensifying the anti-incumbent mood across the country. Specifically, two recent incidents have underscored the doubts shared by many Americans about the political establishment and, at the same time, raised familiar questions about whether Washington is populated by phonies, hypocrites, and liars.
Republican Rep. Mark Souder of Indiana resigned from Congress because he had an affair with a part-time worker on his staff. Souder's sex scandal violated the core Christian values that he has often trumpeted in public, such as marital fidelity and abstinence for young people. In what has become an all-too-common scene of mea culpa, played out on national television, Souder tearfully told reporters he was "shamed" by his moral lapse, and said that he was quitting to spare his family the embarrassment of a congressional ethics investigation and continued media scrutiny. [See which industries gave the most to Souder.]
In another heavily publicized incident, Democratic Senate candidate Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut was forced to fight for his political life after the New York Times reported that he had falsely claimed to have served in Vietnam, when he had actually remained stateside in the Marine Corps Reserves during the fighting. Blumenthal says he "misspoke" on some occasions, but meant to say he served in the military during the Vietnam era, not in the Vietnam War itself. At minimum, his lapses raised questions about whether he had been deceptive in order to inflate his resume. His opponents got right to the point. A spokesman for Connecticut GOP Senate candidate Rob Simmons, a true Vietnam war veteran, said, "Rob Simmons has the one thing money can't buy—character." [See which industries give the most to Congress.]
These are only two in a long series of character questions that have swirled around Washington in recent months. There were the allegations that caused Democratic Rep. Eric Massa of New York to resign after he was accused of harassing male staffers. There was the admitted adultery of Republican Sen. John Ensign of Nevada, who has refused to leave office. [See where Ensign's campaign cash comes from.] There was the criticism of Democratic Rep. Charles Rangel of New York for accepting corporate-paid travel to the Caribbean. Outside Capitol Hill, there was the infamous admission of South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford that he had an affair with a South American woman he described as his soul mate. Sanford, like Ensign, has refused to leave office. [See who gives the most money to Rangel.]
Of course, the most vivid example of the character issue in recent years was former President Bill Clinton's affair with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Initially, Clinton denied the improper relationship, and in one memorable moment he angrily assured the country, on Jan. 26, 1998, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky." It was a falsehood that the president repeated under oath. As a result, he was impeached by the House of Representatives for lying about his adultery, but the Senate declined to remove him from office.
The episode had important, long-range political consequences. In the end, the public made a key distinction in Clinton's case, separating the president's private character, which they found lacking, from his public record, which they found laudable. This kept Clinton's job-approval ratings high even in the midst of the Lewinsky scandal, when Americans considered his personal conduct reprehensible.
As a general matter, the character issue never seems to go away. "It's always out there," says historian Robert Dallek.
What makes all this particularly important now is that the latest moral lapses might further undermine trust in government and contribute to a "throw the bums out" mentality, which is already running strong across the country. One side benefit, however, might go to President Obama, who benefits from pervasive perceptions of his good conduct. By all indications, he has a very strong and committed relationship with his wife, Michelle, and with his two young daughters, Malia and Sasha. In fact, the Obamas seem to embody the kind of family values that Americans admire, which is one reason the president's likability is so high.
But in assessing what to do in the November elections (when Obama won't be on the ballot), voters are again considering matters of morality, and the character issue will be an important factor in determining who survives.