When Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s (D) page from his medical school yearbook surfaced last week with a photo of a man in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan outfit, the calls for his resignation from members of his own party were swift and definitive. From 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls to prominent congressional leaders, few sought to hear him out. They just wanted him gone.
The photo is outrageous and offensive, and Northam’s political career would have been unlikely to survive it under any circumstances. But even so, the quickness with which Democrats came to that conclusion was striking.
Today’s Democratic Party can have zero tolerance for any kind of racism. The same is true for sexual misconduct. In a post-Trump world, they have to take the moral high ground every time.
It’s why they, more slowly but still widely, called for Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) to resign when a photo surfaced of him pretending to grab a woman’s breasts while she slept. It’s why Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), then the oldest-serving member of Congress, had to go after multiple allegations of sexual harassment by female aides.
With President Trump in the White House — a man who called African countries “shitholes,” described a white nationalist protest as having some “very fine people,” and said on camera that he could grab women “by the pussy” because he’s famous — the Democrats have to be unequivocal in their condemnation no matter the offender’s party. To do otherwise would dilute the effectiveness of their attacks on Trump’s behavior.
Democrats have not always put principle over party. Many are just now feeling the aftereffects of standing by President Bill Clinton after his affair with Monica Lewinsky and other allegations of sexual assault. That history made it especially challenging to condemn Trump as unfit for office over his sexual misconduct during the 2016 campaign, especially since he was running against Hillary Clinton, who defends her husband to this day.
The Clinton issue is bound to come up during the 2020 campaign. Already, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who is running for president, made waves in 2017 when she said President Bill Clinton should have resigned. That question of whether he should have resigned will probably be asked of others, and they’ll have little choice but to say the same.
Alternatively, Republicans have had a harder time taking the moral high ground since Trump became their party’s standard-bearer. The most aggressive action they’ve taken on any misconduct is to strip Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) from his committee assignments over comments he made wondering why “white nationalism” had become an offensive term. Several Republicans said he should resign, but he hasn’t.
When Rep. Patrick Meehan (R-Pa.) was alleged to have confessed his feelings to a female staffer and become angry with her when they weren’t reciprocated, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) called for an ethics investigation, but there was no widespread outcry from Republicans for his resignation. Meehan then resigned on his own. The same was true of Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), who asked two female staffers about possibly carrying a child for him and his wife. There was also going to be an ethics investigation, but he stepped down.
Then, of course, there was Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, who was accused of committing a violent sexual assault in high school. Kavanaugh vehemently denied the claims, and Republicans doubled down in their support for him, as did Trump.
The problem for Republicans is that to really come down on members of their own party would make their acceptance of Trump’s behavior stand out in contrast. Yes, they distance themselves from his rhetoric or even condemn it, but then they immediately fall back in line.
Would Democrats be as immediate with their reproach if Trump were not president? In the case of Northam, almost certainly the consensus would have been that he resign over that photo, but it’s hard to know how quickly those calls would have come.