- The Washington Times - Monday, August 25, 2008

Call girls, little white lies, big fat fibs, wavering loyalties, wincing spouses, unfortunate remarks, questionable use of campaign funds and, yes, one possible love child.

A newly realized culture of seduction has cast a potential pall over the Democratic convention this week and diminished the role of certain party luminaries and up-and-comers who could have had starring roles at the podium.

Their passions clouded their reputations, at least temporarily, and it happened only two years after Democrats captured control of Congress from a scandal-scarred GOP it blasted for promoting a “culture of corruption” on Capitol Hill.

The Democratic convention has billed itself to be green, all-American and diverse. But it’s not necessarily forgiving.

There is a roster of rejects expected to be absent from the proceedings, which begin in a matter of hours. Former presidential hopeful John Edwards won’t be there. Neither will former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa - all passed up for a pivotal moment before tens of thousands of Democratic loyalists after their sexual dalliances became public.

“A silver lining in these scandals is that infidelity is still scandalous. This shows that all the efforts to discount Bill Clinton’s cheating as ‘just sex’ didn’t change the national perception - or even Democrats’ - that fidelity matters,” said Wendy Wright, president of the Concerned Women for America.

“Infidelity - sexual or financial - carries national security risks, making a politician vulnerable to blackmail or criminal behavior to cover up his actions. But it also betrays a lack of character and good judgment, that he is willing to sacrifice everything that matters, even people who depend on him, for something not nearly as important,” she added.

Yet in a troubled post-911, post-Monica Lewinsky world, does yet another story about yet another unfaithful politician still resonate with the public? Some think not.

“There are two trend lines that would indicate these concerns will not be a factor. One, the anxiety level in the public is so deep and serious right now that some of the trivial, sensational issues are not going to have the impact they had in the past,” said Democratic consultant Dan Gerstein.

“The second thing is that it’s a mistake to think the public only sees imperfection and failings of just the other side. Both parties have their share of peccadilloes. For every Eliott Spitzer and John Edwards, there’s a Larry Craig or a Mark Foley,” Mr. Gerstein said.

Indeed, shenanigans is a bipartisan sport. In 2006 and 2007, it was the Republican time at bat, when such lawmakers as Rep. Mark Foley of Florida and Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho were caught making lewd advances to congressional pages and a police officer, respectively. The former resigned, the latter did not.

The Foley saga unfolded in the weeks before the 2006 midterm election, adding fuel to the “culture of corruption” refrain Democrats practiced when promising ethics reforms if given control of Congress.

When then-House Majority Leader Tom Delay, Texas Republican, was indicted in Texas on charges of money laundering in 2005, then-House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, called it “the latest example that Republicans in Congress are plagued by a culture of corruption at the expense of the American people.”

Mr. Delay, whose trial is still pending, was followed by fellow Republicans Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham of California, who was sentenced to eight years in federal prison for taking bribes, and former Rep. Robert W. Ney of Ohio, who received a 30-month sentence for taking payoffs from convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Ney - who collected luxury junkets, expensive meals and campaign contributions in exchange for doing legislative favors for Abramoff - became the Democrats’ poster boy for Republican corruption in the 2006 campaign.

Mrs. Pelosi said Ney’s October 2006 guilty plea was a “tragedy for his family, his constituents and all Americans, and it is further proof that the Republican culture of corruption has pervaded Congress.”

Three weeks later, Ney resigned from his House seat.

Democrats don’t condone their colleagues headline-grabbing missteps, but they say it’s unfair to equate bad marital judgment with the graft of several Republicans.

“The American people are more than capable of being able to differentiate between the personal problems of a few and a Republican Party that was dominated by the corrupt practices of Tom DeLay and Jack Ambramoff,” said Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat.

And Mrs. Pelosi’s office noted that the Republican culture of corruption is ongoing.

Sen. Ted Stevens, the chamber’s longest serving Republican, was indicted in July on federal charges of lying about getting hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts from an oil-services firm. The long-running investigation of Alaska’s Mr. Stevens, 84, was fodder in the 2006 campaign.

Whether a politician leaves office after a scandal is dependent on several factors, according to pollster John Zogby. The ultimate goodbye hinges on three things - the degree of the public’s distaste for self-proclaimed “do-gooder” politicians, their expendability of that politician and if their actions were truly illegal.

“It certainly doesn’t help that John Edwards was very high profile and wanted a visible role in the campaign, and that he and his wife proved to be very different than they appeared to be. The Elliott Spitzer problem has legs because it was so dramatic. He raised expectations, and it was powerful. Barack Obama has also raised such expectations,” Mr. Zogby said.

“Secondly, Americans demand authenticity in their candidates. So against this kind of backdrop, it’s prudent to be careful. Very careful,” Mr. Zogby cautioned.

The timing of the Democratic transgressions couldn’t have been worse.

As the presidential campaign was picking up speed just over a year ago, Mr. Villaraigosa revealed he had been having an affair with a TV reporter. A few months later, federal wiretaps revealed that Mr. Spitzer had spent $15,000 on a young prostitute; he resigned during a televised press conference in March, his wife stony-eyed by his side.

As a pre-emptive strike, Mr. Spitzer’s replacement, Lt. Gov. William Patterson, came forward on the day of his inauguration to publicly announce that he had once cheated on his wife with other women - including a state employee. Mr. Patterson carefully stipulated that he had not offered any career favors and that no campaign or state money had been spent in the process.

Also in March, Wayne County prosecutors filed criminal charges against Mr. Kilpatrick for misconduct in office; his extramarital affair with a staff member became public in July.

But the best - or worst depending on one’s viewpoint - was yet to come.

With the highest profile of any of them, Mr. Edwards, a potential running mate of presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama, had the most spectacular plummet from grace in the beginning of August. Initial tabloid reports made almost a year earlier that the presidential hopeful was involved in an adulterous relationship with a female campaign worker even as his wife suffered from breast cancer ultimately proved true.

One of Mr. Edwards’ aides - a married man himself - stepped forward to claim paternity of the paramour’s child. Revelations that Mr. Edwards had spent $144,000 in campaign donations to pay his mistress to produce a few publicity videos also came to light. Melodrama ensued.

“In the course of several campaigns, I started to believe that I was special and became increasingly egocentric and narcissistic. If you want to beat me up, feel free. You cannot beat me up more than I have already beaten up myself. I have been stripped bare and will now work with everything I have to help my family and others who need my help,” Mr. Edwards said in the aftermath.

And “beat up” is what he got. The events sparked a damaging hail of global press coverage from news organizations large and small - including shrill admonishments.

“Unfortunately, with John Edwards, behind the slickly coiffed Ken doll hair was betrayal, arrogance and an inflated ego. At best, he can be described as a flawed human being. At worst, he’s yet another politician who has played the public false, showing there are fathomless depths of betrayal many supporters just didn’t see,” said an editorial in the Chillicothe Gazette, an Ohio paper.

The affair was the end of the Democrats’ “golden boy,” said the Times of London.

“I can’t say I was surprised to hear that John Edwards had cheated on his wife, Elizabeth. In a lot of ways, candidates are in the seduction business,” observed Mark Hare, a columnist with the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.

Though there was considerable coverage of the Edwards affair, some say it garnered some powder-puff treatment in the mainstream news media, and was a part of a greater trend to protect some Democratic candidates.

“Anyone watching the TV stories found a tone of sadness, of the outraged disappointment of Edwards supporters like campaign manager David Bonior. That’s acceptable. But the story came almost entirely from within the Edwards bubble. You couldn’t find in these stories any time for Republicans, and it was rare to find anyone asking not about Edwards, but about the Democrats in general. How would this taint them?” said Brent Bozell, president of the Media Research Center.

But when the proverbial push comes to shove, will the shame factor be an influence in the convention, Democratic unity or the presidential election itself?

“Broadly, I don’t think all of this will have a big impact on the convention, though it may make it a little harder for Democrats to remind people about Republican sins. If there’s any place I’d look for damage, it would be among voters in Michigan and Ohio. The Detroit mayor is involved, number one. Republicans, meanwhile, have been in total free fall in Ohio for about two years,” said pollster Scott Rasmussen.

“Still, at the end of the day, people are going to go in the polling booth and either vote for John McCain or Barack Obama. These assorted Democratic travails will get overridden,” Mr. Rasmussen added.

If anything, Democrats could be more fired up now than they were before the party’s seductive news became public.

“Indicative of the interest in the Denver gathering and the higher level of voter enthusiasm in the Democratic primaries in the spring, 56 percent of Democrats say they are more likely to watch the conventions this year, versus 19 percent who say they are less likely to watch,” said a Rasmussen Reports survey of 1,000 likely voters released Wednesday.

Among Republicans, 40 percent felt the same fervor, the survey found.

Mr. Zogby, meanwhile, has faith that the discerning nation craves authenticity in its elected officials - and that there is some authenticity still surviving in the political dialogue.

“I don’t want to demean anyone, but if negative campaigning worked, Mitt Romney and Hillary Clinton would be in a neck-and-neck battle. And when you step back, who is the most authentic story among Republicans? You can’t take that away from John McCain,” he said.

“Barack Obama has an equally authentic story. It’s the ‘American of the future’ story, the immigration story as the nation grows more diverse. Obama is our first multicultural candidate.”

S.A. Miller and Sean Lengell contributed to this report.