A growing chorus of conservatives appears worried about allegations that GOP contender Herman Cain had a 13-year extramarital affair. That's not surprising, since many voters—though probably fewer than would have been the case a few decades ago—don't like the idea of an elected official betraying his or her spouse. What it startling, however, is that the accusations of sexual harassment against Cain didn't seem to bother people as much.
Let's be clear: we have no proof that Cain is guilty of sexual harassment or that he had an affair. The charges made by four women— including one who went on the record saying Cain groped her sexually in a car— are certainly disturbing, and Cain's denials have been inconsistent. But absent further investigation, we simply don't know yet what transpired.
The alleged affair is a different story, and one which Cain has declined to discuss in detail. Had it occurred—and "13-year affair" is an iffy term, anyway; it could mean that the two had several sexual encounters over the course of 13 years, as opposed to an ongoing relationship—it's not illegal. Many people believe it is immoral, but that is a personal judgment call. It's reasonable to ask why anyone would come forward and disclose such private information, especially when the chief result is to cause pain to the candidate's spouse.
Affairs don't shock as much as they used to, and they have not prevented people from winning or keeping public office. It's not the behavior itself that can derail a candidate, but the context. Bill Clinton's alleged relationship with Gennifer Flowers (Clinton acknowledged only "causing pain" in his marriage) didn't keep him from winning the presidency. John Edwards's affair with a campaign groupie, while his wife was fighting terminal cancer, brought near-universal condemnation. Infidelities can be painful episodes within a marriage, but the country appears to have moved to the point where an affair is not on its own a reason to reject someone for public office.
Cain's supporters rallied around him when he was accused of behavior that could be an actual crime. Why is it an alleged affair that crosses the line?
- See a slide show of famous political sex scandals.
- Read Robert Schlesinger on why Herman Cain's affair allegations are irrelevant.
- See a slide show of GOP spouses on the 2012 campaign trail.