The Art of the Political Comeback

Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Post asked former politicians and political experts what it takes for officials embroiled in scandals to recover their political viability. Below are contributions from Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Christine Todd Whitman, Ed Rogers, Linda Chavez, Douglas E. Schoen, Susan Wise Bauer, Lisa Schiffren and Lanny J. Davis.


Lieutenant governor of Maryland from 1995 to 2003

Titillating as the stories of Sen. John Ensign and Gov. Mark Sanford may be -- particularly for those who, like me, are disgusted with hypocrisy of the Republican right -- I suspect that both have a fine future in politics if that is what either wants. Sin followed by redemption is a classic religious tale. Better the sinner who is found, the lamb who is rescued, the prodigal son who is welcomed back by the grieving father. America is the land of the second chance.

Still, I wish that the return to the fold would be filled with less righteousness and more humility. But I hold little hope. Consider: Rush Limbaugh, a former drug addict, still rails against those he considers weak with no self-consciousness or reflection on his own lawlessness or addiction. Newt Gingrich jumps to the head of the Republican Party -- having left his wife as she lay in the hospital with hardly a nod to the pain that he caused. The faults to which they confessed did not prove an occasion for deepening love and compassion.


Chair of the Republican Leadership Council; governor of New Jersey from 1994 to 2001

On Wednesday, the second elected official in as many weeks publicly confessed to an affair that may end his political career. Given some of the resurrections we have seen, you can never say that someone is politically "dead," but I believe the public tolerance for such behavior, particularly from people who have been so outspoken in their moral superiority, has worn very thin.

Mark Sanford's career is over as far as I am concerned, not because of his affair but because he abandoned his state for five days. As a former governor, I can attest that such behavior is absolutely inexcusable. Given this irresponsibility, I would not be surprised if the resignation talk gets to the point of his having to step down. Sen. John Ensign is in a different position -- his problem is basic hypocrisy.

The real issue with all the indiscretions we have witnessed in recent years, including those of Gov. Eliot Spitzer and President Bill Clinton, to name a couple more, is what it says to young people. How can we expect the next generation to view elected officials -- or even simply the offices they hold -- with any respect, to say nothing of the valuable institution of marriage? How can we expect them to vote or get involved in the political process? The actions of these individuals belie the notion of a "higher office," and the deception they have wrought may seriously jeopardize the next generation's civic participation.


White House staffer to Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush; chairman of BGR Group

In more than 25 years in Washington, I've been in and around a lot of trouble. Almost nothing is politically fatal. In politics, you almost always survive if you don't quit. Some level of rehabilitation is almost always possible. Blunders leave scars, and some are more visible than others. Gov. Sanford has an open wound on his forehead that will ultimately become an unattractive scar, but who's to say it would keep him from elective office in the future? It will keep him from being a credible candidate for president, certainly, but rehabilitation is different from complete reconstruction.

Much of one's ability for rehabilitation depends on how the initial blast is handled. It has become formulaic to have a teary news conference, go through some sort of mental or physical rehab, and make syrupy commitments to your family and to the public good. But this synthetic formula is worn out and tends to perpetuate the problem and increase the ridicule. When you've been caught or the damage is done, say what you're going to say in public, then keep your chin up and your mouth shut. Commit yourself to your work and act like it doesn't bother you. With any luck it will fade and everyone, including you, will move on.

Americans love a story of a fall from grace and then redemption.


Chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity; former member of the Reagan administration

Rehabilitation from personal scandal seems a lot easier for Democrats than Republicans, especially if the scandal involves sex. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) managed to overcome revelations about his relationship with a male prostitute, as did former House member Gerry Studds (D-Mass.), whose affair with a Capitol Hill page did not prevent him from being reelected. But neither man made family values a platform in his political campaign, which may be why Republicans have such problems overcoming the stigma of an illicit relationship once revealed.

Hypocrisy seems to be the one unforgivable sin in politics. Once a politician has made moral probity the centerpiece of his identity, there's not much he can do but ask for forgiveness if he transgresses. It helps if he doesn't offer excuses for his behavior, doesn't engage in rambling confessions with too much information (a la Sanford) and doesn't try to pretend he can still be a moral exemplar. But his remorse must be genuine, not just a convenient pose. He'll have to earn back trust -- of his family and his supporters -- and the best way to do that is to keep a low profile and get back to work. Americans are very forgiving, provided repentance is real and the behavior isn't repeated.


Democratic pollster and author; adviser to President Bill Clinton from 1994 to 2000

There is a dirty little secret in politics -- it's usually not the sex that gets adulterers in trouble.

True, most Americans consider sex outside of marriage immoral. And the media loves to rehash every sordid detail. But Americans care a lot less about the private behavior of consenting adults -- even their elected officials -- than most in the chattering class would like to believe.

The American people care, first and foremost, about whether their officials are able to effectively perform the jobs they were elected to do. They hold indiscretions against officials only if conduct suggests dereliction of duty or worse. In the cases of John Ensign and Mark Sanford, credible allegations of misconduct separate from their acknowledged assignations have to be addressed before they can hope to become credible and effective public officials again.

The best way to rehabilitate yourself politically is to offer the requisite apologies and then simply get on with the job you were elected to do.

That is what Republican Sen. David Vitter (La.) has done since he admitted to having had sex with a prostitute. By all accounts, Vitter stands a better-than-even chance of being reelected next year.

It is certainly what President Bill Clinton did in 1998. Polling showed that his approval rating actually went up after the impeachment process began. The president's slogan, "Progress, Not Partisanship," neatly encapsulated the public mood and led to a surprising pickup in House seats and a dead heat in the Senate during a midterm election that the Democrats were widely expected to lose.

To be sure, the American people love a titillating story. But they care much more about who can deliver for them.


Author of "The Art of the Public Grovel: Sexual Sin and Public Confession in America"

If Mark Sanford hopes to stay in office, he needs to say, flatly, "I sinned." He said, "I hurt people" and "I let them down," which is only a good start. Voters get very worried about the sexual behavior of an elected leader when it involves the breaking of an oath. After all, he swore an oath to preserve, protect and defend his constituency. Now he needs to act counterintuitively: Instead of minimizing his transgressions, he's got to demonstrate that he realizes just how wrong he was. That calls for a full, evangelical-style grovel with no excuses: I sinned. I promise to atone for my sin. I repent and will never do it again.

Second, he needs to be clear about any crossover between his affair and the finances of South Carolina. Breaking an oath to your wife is bad enough; playing around with the state treasury to do so is probably unforgivable.

Third, he needs to avoid any blame-shifting. "I have found in this job . . . that one desperately needs a break from the bubble," he said in his ramblings on Wednesday. "I've found that to be true in trips to the farm or in trips other places further afield. . . . I talked about the profound frustrations that I felt over this last legislative session in the battle that was in place with regard to the stimulus package, the $700 million in play, and how at an emotional level I found it exhausting." Mark: If you want to keep your job, don't tell your constituents that battling the Democrats tired you out so much that you needed to run off to Argentina.


Speechwriter to Vice President Dan Quayle; contributor to National Review Online's "The Corner" blog

The first rule for rehabilitating your political career in the wake of a self-made mess, especially of the sexual kind, is to keep going. Get back up and do your job and call in your favors. All the rest of the rules generally apply only to Republicans, because when Democrats have sex scandals, for the most part their constituents rationalize them away at re-election time. For Republicans, a short period of public remorse and humility is essential. It helps for the affair to be over. It helps not to have an email record of adolescent infatuation.

The formerly obscure Sen. John Ensign should pick a big policy idea to attach his name and efforts to, so we have something else to identify with him. And, sorry, but he's lost the right to moralize for a while. Study economics.

Gov. Mark Sanford, meanwhile, has to keep fighting. I admire him enormously for his spirited defense of free markets and small government. No other potential 2012 candidate has had the guts to come out swinging on the battlefield of ideas against a very popular new president who is increasing the scope of government beyond anything we've ever seen. Keep doing it. Two thousand twelve may not be his year, but continuing the fight will do wonders for both Sanford and his natural constituents. Given the nation's sharp left turn under the current administration, I suspect that many conservatives will find themselves able to support a personally flawed but politically principled candidate -- if he has the right ideas, steel and talent to win. After his emotional meltdown, Sanford will need to reinforce that steel -- and show us he really wants it. Poltics is a brutal career. Opting out is not dishonorable.

Lastly, spare us the personal details. No books about healing. Dignity requires private suffering.


Special counsel to President Bill Clinton from 1996 to 1998

I have spent more than a decade in legal crisis management. My overall strategic mantra, to companies and to individuals, is the subtitle of my 1999 White House memoir: "Truth to Tell: Tell It All, Tell It Early, Tell It Yourself."

This advice, generically correct in the areas of political and corporate crises, is easier said than done in one particular area of life: the human weakness of sexual indiscretions, as familiar as the ancient story of Adam and Eve.

My heart goes out to Sen. John Ensign and his family, Gov. Mark Sanford and his family, and everyone else caught in the unforgiving glare of the public spotlight (made worse by sanctimonious talking heads on 24-7 cable TV).

I can offer only one piece of advice: Whenever you can, whenever you are ready -- if you are ever ready -- tell the truth, ask for forgiveness, and then work hard to repair the wounds inside yourself and, if possible, your family. Everything else is so far secondary that it isn't even worth thinking about.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company