In 2014, the French president François Hollande was photographed visiting his mistress via scooter. The French barely blinked. In the 1990s, when Bill Clinton faced accusations of adultery while in office, the affair consumed the country. For Americans, the private lives of politicians and public officials are often important indications of their character.
Over the past few months, a dam has been breached in American culture and politics concerning sexual harassment, outing powerful figures like Roger Ailes, Kevin Spacey, and Louis C.K. Roy Moore, running for Senate in Alabama, and Al Franken, the current Senator from Minnesota, are the latest public figures to face accusations of sexual impropriety.
While the others can dip out of the spotlight, or “seek treatment,” as many of them have, Moore is facing an election in less than a month. Out of these men, he is the only one who Americans have a chance to judge. For many Alabamans, the choice between Roy Moore, accused by several women of inappropriate behavior when they were children, and Doug Jones, a Democrat, is a choice with no easy out. Representative Mo Brooks of Alabama stated (while being stubbornly pursued by a reporter) that he would still vote for Roy Moore because, “Democrats will do great damage to our country.”
When in history has a candidate’s morality become an issue in an election?
One good example is the campaign of Grover Cleveland in 1884. Cleveland faced accusations of having a baby out of wedlock with a woman named Maria Halpin. When the baby was born, it was put up for adoption and Halpin was committed to a mental asylum–despite doctors there finding nothing especially wrong with her. Halpin said that their encounter had not been consensual, that he’d put the baby up for adoption, and forced her into the hospital.
Cleveland claimed that the paternity was uncertain; his supporters dismissed the allegations as “boys being boys” although in 1884, Cleveland was 47 years old. Republicans reveled in this, and would gather to chant “Ma, ma, where’s my pa?” at Cleveland rallies.
But the Republicans had problems of their own. Although Cleveland was morally problematic, his opponent, Republican James Blaine, had been roasted over the public coals for his corruption concerning the nation’s railroads. The choice, then, was whether the voters wanted a man who had corrupt morals, or one who was just corrupt.
Cleveland narrowly defeated Blaine, becoming the first Democrat since the Civil War to be elected president. Victorious Democrats answered Republican’s taunts with, “Off to the White House, ha, ha, ha!”
There’s no evidence that Doug Jones is corrupt as Blaine was, but the anecdote does suggest that a candidate, even one as problematic as Moore, could be elected. Especially if some voters in Alabama see electing a Democrat as just as bad, if not worse, than someone accused of sexually harassing young girls.