Apparently, one of the hardest things to do in politics is denounce a longtime ally when they’re caught engaging in unforgivable misconduct.
Six days ago, the New York Times reported on decades of sordid and sleazy sexual misconduct by Hollywood producer and longtime Democratic party fundraiser Harvey Weinstein. It took Hillary Clinton until yesterday to release a statement about the scandal. It took Barack Obama until today.
But Trump! But Anthony Weiner! But Roger Ailes! But Bill Clinton! But Bill O’Reilly! But Ted Kennedy! But Congressman Tim Murphy! For every prominent figure on the left accused of gross sexual misconduct, progressives point to a prominent figure on the right, and vice versa. Very few people come out and explicitly excuse or defend the behavior; they mostly point to the other side’s creeps and make a valid point about the hypocrisy of others. And then they sort of . . . eagerly move on from any lasting discussion of actual misbehavior by their ally or former ally.
Did (or does) Fox News operate in a “frat-house atmosphere,” even while pitching itself as the network of choice for those who prefer traditional cultural values? Do the Democratic party and Hollywood effectively let the rich and famous purchase indulgences with large donations? Is Congress mostly a collection of insecure middle-aged men eager to leverage their powerful position for sexual attention from younger females? Those are uncomfortable questions for anyone who cares about politics and wants to believe it is something more than an amoral snake pit.
It’s a common argument among frustrated conservatives that Republicans “always eat their own” — that they’re too eager to criticize and denounce other Republicans for moral failings while the Democrats offer a united front and a code of silence about allegations of misbehavior. But do Republicans always, or even frequently, eat their own? Did they lead the charge against former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell and his unsavory collection of unreported gifts from a donor with business before the state? Did they make former Congressman Michael Grimm plead guilty to felony tax evasion and admit to hiring illegal immigrants? Did they howl in outrage when it was revealed that former HHS secretary Tom Price routinely used private jets on the taxpayer’s dime?
No. For the most part, they just tried to stay as far away from those scandals as possible. Too often, the “eating our own” complaint merely reflects a frustration that some Republicans expect their elected officials to meet a minimum standard of conduct and behavior.
Recent history suggests that the willingness to defend a scandal-tarred politician — and thus a scandal-tarred politician’s ability to survive — largely depends upon his rank and importance to the party. President Bill Clinton survived the Lewinsky scandal in his second term; had he been a mere congressman, he probably would not have remained in office. Donald Trump survived the Access Hollywood tape because he was the GOP nominee and there was no easy way for horrified Republicans to replace him.
It’s not just political expediency that feeds the reluctance to condemn misbehavior in one’s own party, though. It’s the psychic cost of admitting that your party isn’t as righteous as you thought. Harvey Weinstein disrupts the flattering story Democrats tell themselves, that they are the party that respects women, that stands up to abuses of power, and that is uniquely attuned to remedying the injustices of the world. The ugly portrait of Weinstein looks a little too similar to the repugnant chapters of Bill Clinton’s life, with their threats and payoffs and relentless sense of entitlement. The stories of Hollywood’s quiet complicity sounds a little too similar to the portrait of the Clinton Foundation as a glamorous but deeply corrupt “favor factory.”
And yet, even knowing all that, it took five days of public shaming and criticism for Hillary Clinton to make a statement about Weinstein. President Obama, whose own daughter Malia interned at the Weinstein Company, waited six days before speaking up.
Getting political leaders to denounce bad behavior on their own side would require them to let go of the fantasy that their own side is more virtuous, honorable, and well behaved than the other side. Right now, that seems to be too much to ask.