The Phony Second-Degree Political Scandal

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Public officials do bad things. They take bribes, sleep with prostitutes, make racially insensitive jokes and take positions over which you, the voter, can justifiably be upset. These are first-degree political sins committed by first-degree political sinners that lead to first-degree political scandals. And they are clearly newsworthy.

Sometimes, however, the people doing the bad things are not the primary public official, but folks who are tied in some way to the public official. They can be old friends, supporters, fundraisers, estranged family members, employees and almost anything else. In these cases, the public official has not in any way directly participated in the sin. Yet a scandal ensues, nonetheless. We can call these the second-degree political scandals, and they are as common as white shoes and belts at a 2002 Coldplay concert.

Quite literally every day, I get another email from a political researcher or interest group, or read another blog post or comment, demanding more outrage over one of these second-degree scandals. There was Barack Obama endorsement from Minister Louis Farrakhan, who has a record of antisemitic comments. There was John McCain’s endorsement from Pastor John Hagee, who has a record of anti-Catholic comments. There was Mike Huckabee endorsement from Pastor Kenneth Copeland, who is under investigation by the Senate for abusing his church’s tax status. Then there is an entire other category of campaign surrogates who say or do things that make them resign lest they tar the reputation of the first-degree official. The body count seems to grow every day: Samantha Power, Geraldine Ferraro, Bill Shaheen, Jay Garrity, etc. etc. etc.

It should be a challenge to figure out how to cover the second-degree sin, since each case is different. Questions to ask: Is the second-degree sin newsworthy in its own right? Is there reason to believe that the first-degree official knew of, agrees with or otherwise participated in the second-degree sin? Does the second-degree sin actually tell us anything useful about the first-degree official?

With rare exception, the press errs on the side of making a big deal out of anything that can be considered a “scandal.” McCain’s endorsement by Hagee got lots of negative newspaper, blog and network news coverage. Tim Russert went gangbusters on Obama at a recent debate over the Farrakhan endorsement. NBC News even had Ferraro on yesterday to announce that she no longer wanted to be in the news. Political pros know this, which is why they keep trying to come up with more second-degree scandals to fan the flames.

Which leads to the long-delayed point of this post: the absurd flood of press releases that has been coming out of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Here is a sample:

Will Kirsten Gillibrand Return Spitzer’s Sleazy Money?

Once Proud to Campaign with Eliot Spitzer, Gillibrand Lined Her Campaign Coffers with the Governor’s Cash

The press release goes on to claim that the freshman New York Rep. Gillibrand is “ensnared in this heated story” of Spitzer having a prostitute problem. How is she ensnared? Spitzer once gave her campaign $5,000.

The absurdity of this charge is almost too much to bear, especially since the NRCC has put out releases on four other Democratic congressmen as well. All of them have allegedly been dirtied by the fact that a guy they know happened to have a secret second life, which had absolutely nothing to do with them or the money they received. If this NRCC standard for “ensaring” was actually enforceable, there would be a steep drop off in political contributions to all campaigns.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington put out a press release this morning making this obvious point.

In light of the National Republican Congressional Committee’s call for candidates and members of Congress to return soon-to-be former Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s (D) donations, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) wonders why members and the National Republican Senatorial Committee have not returned Sen. David Vitter’s (R-LA) contributions. As widely reported, Sen. Vitter has solicited prostitutes in the past. Rather than being condemned and ostracized, Sen. Vitter received a standing ovation at a Republican Caucus luncheon after his transgressions became public.

Please let us avoid this route. There must be limits on the scope of the second-degree scandal.