Herman Cain Affair Allegations Are Irrelevant

Private infidelity does not necessarily translate to bad policy.

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Wow, Herman Cain and I actually agree on something. Well, his lawyer and I actually agree on something anyway.

[ Check out political cartoons about the 2012 GOP candidates.]

Yesterday afternoon, a new element was added to the allegations of Cain’s peccadilloes: An Atlanta woman named Ginger White claimed that she had a 13 year affair with Cain. My reaction in brief was … so?

My longer reaction more or less mirrors Cain attorney Lin Wood’s statement, which he issued to the Atlanta Fox affiliate which broke the “story.” Wood said, in part:

This is not an accusation of harassment in the workplace-- this is not an accusation of an assault--which are subject matters of legitimate inquiry to a political candidate.

Rather, this appears to be an accusation of private, alleged consensual conduct between adults--a subject matter which is not a proper subject of inquiry by the media or the public. No individual, whether a private citizen, a candidate for public office or a public official, should be questioned about his or her private sexual life. The public's right to know and the media's right to report has boundaries and most certainly those boundaries end outside of one's bedroom door.

What else is there to say? He’s right. Now it may be that some voters, especially those in Republican primaries, take a different view, reasoning that there’s a link between private conduct and policy outcomes, but frankly they’re wrong. Franklin D. Roosevelt and Martin Luther King, to name two, were unfaithful and still managed to be two of this nation’s more important leaders.

Even if Cain’s pre-emptive and flat denial on CNN yesterday afternoon (the latest installment in his ongoing series on how not to do crisis communications) turns out to be full of something other than the truth—even if he lied about sex on national television—it still won’t matter (though you might be able to make an argument that the foolhardy hubris to make such a claim would count as disqualifying stupidity).

[ See photos of the 2012 Republican field.]

That a consensual affair should be a non-issue does not (as Wood notes) mean that accusations of harassment are off base. Just because both are related to sex it does not mean that both are on a par.

As my bloleague Susan Milligan wrote earlier this month, there is a material difference between a consensual affair and harassment.

Nor is anything involving sex the same. Texting your female employees pictures of your genitalia? Harassment. Texting the same to women who voluntarily entered into a cyber relationship with you? Really creepy, offensive, and narcissistic. Having an affair when you're an elected official? Very distasteful, but arguably no one's business. Lying about it, then asking your campaign manager to lie for you, and using campaign funds to achieve the cover-up? Also really bad, and possibly criminal, depending on whether there was misuse of campaign cash.

And grabbing someone's breasts, penis, or other private part is not "fondling" (as former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's alleged behavior toward women was described). It's molestation. Sticking your hand up someone's skirt and pulling her head toward your crotch against her will is not an "unwanted sexual advance," as the allegations against GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain have been described. It's an attempted sexual assault.

There remain serious allegations against Herman Cain. Marital infidelity is not one of them.