01 July, 2009

Should Sanford resign?

Nate Silver doesn't think so.

He brings up a question I've been thinking a lot about lately: the extent to which private foibles reflect upon, and should influence our judgment of, public duties. Silver argues that the two have little to nothing to do with each other, and that we as a society should strive to erect a Chinese wall between our politician's public and private lives. I tend to agree; I think that governance performance is the paramount consideration, and that predilection for private vice bears very little on successful service of the common good. The public would be much better off with Eliot Spitzer in office and Tom Daschle skillfully shepherding health reform through a recalcitrant Congress - although those are not pure examples, since they both involve some level of public sin. For more direct comparisons, however, FDR, JFK and Bill Clinton all carried on one or more affairs while rendering outstanding service to the country. Shouldn't Sanford be judged by the voters based on the outcome of his disastrous governing philosophy rather than on the ups and downs of his romantic life?

I realize this position goes against what the vast majority of Americans probably say and think they believe. Most will say they want their leaders to personify a personal integrity in all walks of life that can serve as an example to citizens. (Obama's carefully cultivated image as an uber-healthy exercise nut, loving husband and doting father has skillfully tapped into this.) But in practice, I think people are more able to separate the two spheres of life. Bill Clinton's popularity was relatively high throughout the Lewinsky scandal and has only increased with time. And while this Gallup poll centers on the banal discovery that everyone things cheating is "morally wrong", it also contains a more interesting number showing 46% of people saying that a presidential candidate revealed to have had an affair would bother them "not much or not at all", with much of the rest saying it would only bother them "moderately". On the other hand, a Spitzer comeback is probably a long shot - prostitution is quite a bit more unsavory than a romantic affair, and a crime besides.


spencer said...

Leaving aside the question of whether he should resign, why do people demand the resignation of someone who has philandered?

Are people who have extramarital affairs actually worse leaders? Clearly not, since as Elliot points out, FDR, JFK, and Bill Clinton were all pretty successful presidents.

Another explanation is that people want to punish moral transgressors either because it's bad or as a disincentive. But if this were the case why do people not demand that a lawyer be disbarred for cheating on her spouse? Or that a Wal-Mart employee who fools around on the side be fired? What makes the political job different?

One difference is that political figures are highly visible and can be made an example of. Public officials having their lives destroyed may just be a mechanism to convey moral codes and convince people that they are worth following.

Here's a short convo on the topic from Conor Clarke and Conor Friedersdorf:


Inspector Clouseau said...

From my perspective, the issue is quite simple. Rightly or wrongly, he has lost a substantial number of people who are willing to support him, place confidence in him, and trust him. A leader needs as many people believing in him or her as possible.

As for resignation, http://www.tinyurl.com/n3vlg3

Elliot said...

re: Spencer - I think the "making an example of" is the most rational explanation of the double standard you mention. But to my mind the dubious benefits of imposing that moral code through the foucaultian mechanism of public shaming is not worth the high cost. In fact, I think linking morality to private rather than public behavior is part of the problem. No one feels compelled to resign high office because they chose to implement disastrous policies, even though that is at least as "immoral" as infidelity.

re: Inspector - I agree that, as the matter stands, a cheating politician will definitely lose my support, for whatever that's worth. But the reason he loses my support is not because of his private behavior per se, but because I know that his behavior has caused many others to drop their support, and I want politicians of my ideology to be as successful as possible.

But I think many people, like me, only drop their support because they think other people are dropping theirs - a self-fulfilling prophecy. So I think it would be in the public interest if we could get to a point where enough people didn't look to private vices in evaluating leaders. It may never happen, but in the meantime we're losing good public servants for no good reason, and that is a real public cost.

spencer said...

Implementing disastrous policies may be more easily rationalized away... "I got unlucky", "Congress messed up the bill", etc.