He’s generally flown beneath the radar in a political environment that thrives on scandal but it looks like David Vitter may finally pay for his past sins. The Louisiana senator and advocate for abstinence education was disgraced in 2007 when his phone number was found on a list of patrons of the infamous “DC Madam” and her Washington prostitution ring. Vitter apologized for his “very serious sin” but unlike many other politicians who bowed to pressure from the public or outraged colleagues to resign, he refused to budge. Not only did his wife stand by him but also thanks to the ethically challenged culture of Louisiana that has long tolerated all sorts of misbehavior from its political class, he was even re-elected in 2010. But not everyone has forgotten about his sordid past.
Vitter has been a thorn in the side of Senate Democrats lately since he is working hard to embarrass them into agreeing to drop the federal subsidies that underwrite the health care costs of members of Congress and their staffs. To get even with the Louisianan, Politico reports Democrats are planning on resurrecting the prostitution episode in an effort to force Vitter to cease and desist his guerilla warfare on the issue that has brought the Senate to a virtual standstill in the last week. Their plan is to introduce their own amendment that would deny a subsidy to any lawmaker for whom there is “probable cause” to believe they solicited prostitutes.
This raises an interesting question about ethics. Though there is an argument to be made in favor of requiring officials to respect public morals (a point I made yesterday in discussing the failure of two scandal-plagued pols to win redemption from the public), is it ethical or even permissible to use the failings of politicians not merely to defeat them at the polls but to blackmail them to abandon political principles that are inconveniencing their opponents? If it is, then it appears to me that we have gone far beyond merely the scrapping of the old rules of the gentlemanly Senate “club.” Are Senate Democrats really prepared to answer arguments that point up the hypocrisy of politicians who want to impose substandard health insurance on the people while personally enjoying a far more generous federal benefits package by drafting legislation whose only purpose is to humiliate a senator for his past misconduct? If so, then we have replaced the old ways with something that isn’t merely hyper-partisan but representative of the kind of gutter politics that should make even the likes of Majority Leader Harry Reid blush.
Those who are prepared to argue that Vitter is a hypocrite and has not been held accountable for misconduct that occurred while he was a member of Congress will get no argument from me. We are entitled to believe the good people of Louisiana are daft to think Vitter’s services are indispensible. But there is a difference between a justified moral outrage at a lawmaker and advocate for family values behaving in such a manner and using his past in order to advance a political agenda that is every bit as cynical as anything he has done.
Unethical behavior comes in a variety of shapes and sizes. Whatever we may think of Vitter’s transgressions and the brazen manner in which he has ignored those who have rightly called him out, Senate Democrats (many of whom backed President Clinton when he was caught lying under oath about sexual misconduct and his carrying on with a White House intern in the Oval Office) are in no position to claim the moral high ground. Indeed, using this episode in order to silence Vitter can be seen as far worse than his conduct. Blackmail is not unknown in politics but it rare that it is practiced as openly as this.
Vitter’s willingness to use the rules to jam up Reid’s efforts to run the Senate is annoying his foes. But the issue he is championing is one that would require Congress to live by the same rules as everyone else, especially when they have passed a bill that will subject the country to a health care regime that will raise costs for countless Americans and cost others their jobs. In this context, bringing up the DC Madam charge in order to shut the GOP senator up isn’t advocacy for public morals; it’s shameless behavior that lowers the tone of public life far below anything that bad boys like Vitter, Anthony Weiner or Eliot Spitzer have done.
Nor will it work since if Vitter had the chutzpah to stay in the Senate with prostitution charges hanging over his head, he will not be deterred by the Democratic amendment. In fact, Reid may have done something that many thought impossible: made Vitter look sympathetic.
Though his presence in the Senate does his state no credit, ironically Vitter may be teaching the country a lesson in morality that a better man might not have been able to do. By illustrating the utter lack of an ethical compass on the part of the Senate’s Democratic leadership, he has made a case that there really are worse things than having a sexual transgressor in high office. In this case, it may be better to be a chastened sinner than a ruthless, unethical and hypocritical Majority Leader.