Trey Radel Shows How to Handle a Drug Scandal

Rep. Trey Radel could teach Toronto Mayor Rob Ford a few things.

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Since Rep. Trey Radel, R-Fla., avoided a bizarre spectacle along the lines of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford's "war rant" at court Wednesday, the likelihood is that his cocaine scandal will fade quickly from public view.

Having not only apologized for making an "extremely irresponsible choice" (purchasing, possessing and presumably planning to use illegal drugs) and for causing his family needless suffering, Radel also wisely announced his intent to seek treatment for his alcohol problems. Simply put, an elected official's private substance abuse and addiction struggles are not nearly as scandalous as his public denials, defenses, lies and explosive confrontations (see also: former Democratic Rep. and New York mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner).

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Before frustrated Democratic partisans begin charging that there is a "double standard" when it comes to Republicans and their moral failings (which by the way, my past scholarly research found was true for Republicans involved in personal scandals, though it also found that they faced worse electoral retribution than Democrats), it may be helpful to recall how the media treated former Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., after he admitted to years of substance abuse problems after a brush with the law. In that instance, after his full confession, the media largely treated his struggles as a private matter, and he was able to serve his final years in Congress without constant inquiries on the subject.

This is not to say that Radel will be able to continue serving as a member of Congress.

While the media coverage is not likely to be enough to force Radel out of the House, nor would the electoral consequences likely to be great enough to oust him from his seat (see the "Congress" section in our new edited volume, "Scandal! An Interdisciplinary Approach to Consequences, Outcomes, and Significance of Political Scandal"), it seems altogether possible that Radel would face a credible challenger in his primary in his newly redrawn and heavily Republican-leaning South Florida district.

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With a Republican Party already feeling as though it is going to have to defend too many of its incumbents in party primaries, they may seek to persuade Radel to pack his bags and head for home. In other words, the timing of Radel's transgression and the hyper-sensitive context of the political climate may doom his chances of survival. Additionally, while House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, hasn't been able to wield much power over his conference in certain areas, tainted members of the House GOP have decided to step aside quickly "for the good of the party" in the past.

In this case, the personal looks to become political, despite what may be a "forgivable offense." Radel's struggles with alcohol and drugs, along with his admission in court that he "hit a bottom and I realize I need help," paint a sympathetic portrait of a man trying to turn his life around after a series of mistakes. Mayor Ford's behavior elicits no such sentiment.

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