Virginia Gov.-elect Ralph Northam, center, in the Virginia Capitol in Richmond with Lt. Gov.-elect Justin Fairfax, right, and Attorney General Mark R. Herring on Jan. 12, 2018. (Steve Helber/AP)
Columnist

The state of Virginia is experiencing one of the most astonishing cascading scandals in American political history.

First there was the medical school yearbook of Virginia’s Democratic governor, Ralph Northam, whose page showed a young man in blackface beside someone in a Ku Klux Klan costume. After apologizing on Friday for appearing in the photo, without specifying which person he was, Northam the next day denied knowing anything about it — but admitted that he had once worn blackface in the ’80s when he dressed up as Michael Jackson. Demands for his resignation poured in, especially from Northam’s own party.

Cynics might have noted that Democrats had little to lose by trying to force Northam out; the gubernatorial succession runs to Democratic Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, and then to Democratic Attorney General Mark R. Herring. Only if both Fairfax and Herring were somehow taken out would the governorship pass to Kirk Cox, the Republican speaker of the House of Delegates. So there was no reason to demur from the emerging left-wing consensus that any allegation of sexual misconduct or racism, no matter how old or how poorly corroborated, merits the social, economic and political death penalty.

Wait for it . . .

On Sunday, allegations emerged that Fairfax had sexually assaulted a woman at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. He denied the story, but it continued to develop over the days that followed. On Wednesday morning, NBC News reported that in a private meeting a day earlier, Fairfax had denounced his accuser in obscene terms.

Fortunately for Democrats, Mark Herring was still available as a backstop if needed. Until Wednesday, that is, when Herring confirmed that he, too, had worn blackface in the 1980s.

If Northam continues refusing to resign, Democrats can publicly keep saying he ought to go, even if they’re privately grateful he hasn’t. But Republicans in the state legislature can undercut them at any moment by introducing a motion to impeach Northam. Then Democrats would have to decide whether they care more about retaining power or adhering to their recently articulated, unforgiving principles about punishing allegations of long-lost episodes of racism or sexual assault.

Alternatively, Democrats could take the opportunity to rethink some of those principles. Not opposition to blackface or to sexual assault but to the rules for adjudicating and punishing allegations of past offenses. Should every single instance merit harsh summary justice?

The repugnant practice of blackface was mainstream entertainment a century ago. In the 1980s, blackface was still apparently acceptable enough in some quarters that young men put it on and smiled for a camera. But America has undergone a period of unusually rapid social change, and today no decent person would countenance such behavior. Over the course of a lifetime, some people will have done a bad thing before they fully realized its badness.

If those people are willing to acknowledge their past sins, they deserve some leniency, not because racist caricature is anything less than abhorrent but because the easier it is for people to leave behind their past wrongs, the faster society can move forward.

Sexual assault is a different matter. But it is not anti-woman, or pro-rape, to recognize that old memories can be unreliable, or to acknowledge that false accusations do happen, and therefore conclude that something more than a simple accusation is needed to justify drumming someone out of public life.

Had Democrats staked out this reasonable middle ground earlier, they would not be facing such an ugly situation in Virginia. It would be embarrassing to shift positions now. But that’s better than the tempting alternative: practice restraint when their political interests are at stake, and reassemble the vigilante squad when a Republican turns up in the dock.

That’s essentially what they did with Bill Clinton. Just when feminists were making serious inroads against sexual harassment, Democrats started pretending that it somehow wasn’t an appalling abuse of power for the most powerful man in the world to use an intern for sexual gratification. It’s nauseating to contemplate what the women in my generation were forced to endure while waiting for the Clintons to leave public life so that feminists could reclaim their principles from lost-and-found. 

But that is nothing compared with the damage that would be done if the left went soft on its own, while maintaining a hard line for its opponents. That reduces vital principles to mere tactical political weapons — and in doing so, renders them largely useless either as weapons or as principles.

Instead, what’s needed is a single standard for everyone, one that delivers swift punishment for clear and recent offenses but recognizes the inherent ambiguity of older and less well-corroborated ones. In the short term, tempering justice with mercy will be better for Democrats. And in the long term, much better for America.

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