The No. 1 rule of political scandal is that you can almost always ride it out. President Clinton had been Exhibit A, at least until Donald Trump rode out the Access Hollywood tape and ended up in the White House.
A whole host of lesser officeholders have overcome unsavory improprieties, including Republican Sens. David Vitter (DC Madam) and Larry Craig (“wide stance”). Even former Gov. Mark Sanford was elected to Congress after straying on the Appalachian Trail. Iowa Republican Steve King, the recent subject of much deserved scrutiny for racist comments, is still in Congress. Democrat Chuck Robb rode out allegations of an affair with a former Miss Virginia USA while he was in the Senate, and reports about cocaine parties in his Virginia Beach circles when he was governor. The late Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd ascended to become his party's leader even though as a young man he had been a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
Yet Virginia Governor Ralph Northam agonizes about whether he can hang onto his job in the wake of a photo on his medical school yearbook page that he initially said showed him in either black face or in a Klan robe before deciding that it wasn’t him in the photo on his page after all ("It has taken time for me to make sure that it’s not me").
In the pantheon of odd political moments, Northam appeared ready to demonstrate at his Saturday press conference the moonwalk he said he’d done with black shoe polish on his face at a dance competition in 1984 until his wife, standing next to him, said, “Inappropriate.”
Monday morning, after a weekend of politicians and pundits saying Northam has to go, the speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates remained reluctant to call for impeachment, saying there’s “a rightful hesitation about removal from office… You have to consider, to some degree, you’re overturning an election.”
Impeachment requires malfeasance in office, and Northam is not accused of that. In fact, he’s been exemplary in his behavior as an elected official on issues of race that are at the center of the controversy. So the decision may be his: If he can gut it out like other public figures before him, he can keep his job. The alternative for Northam must seem like a living hell, the end of his political career over racist acts that he thought were buried in his past.
“You can ride this out, but to what purpose,” asks Bill Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Governance Studies program. “There’s a difference between legally holding office and being seen as a legitimate wielder of the power of that office.”
This is a critical point in the Virginia legislative season where the governor sits down and hammers out a budget, and where Northam’s effectiveness and credibility is being judged. He can remain governor, but at what cost to himself and to others?
Northam’s predecessor and mentor, Terry McAuliffe, a likely presidential candidate, is urging him to resign. So are Virginia’s two Democratic senators. When all your friends have deserted you, it’s time to go.
Politically speaking, he is a walking dead man. At the same time, with his lieutenant governor and potential replacement, Justin Fairfax, fending off unsubstantiated claims of sexual assault that surfaced on the same conservative website, Big League Politics, that unearthed the Northam photo, it’s looking a little more likely that the governor can ride out the storm.
The scandal came—decades after the photo was first published—at a pivotal time in Democratic politics. If it weren’t for the African-American vote, Northam, who has led an honorable public life until now, would not be governor.
And Democrats need to contrast the integrity of their public officials with the rampant corruption in Trump’s camp. One Democratic strategist who works in Virginia says that regardless of whether Northam stays or goes, “Scandals don’t come with the cost that people think they do. If a political scandal were a death knell, Donald Trump would be dead 20 times over.”
The most recent Republican Governor Bob McDonnell was convicted on corruption charges, later overturned by the Supreme Court, for receiving gifts and loans in office, a scandal that played out for much of his time in office. Virginia governors under the state constitution only serve one term, so removing them hardly seems worth the effort.
There is a greater good here, though: taking one for the team. If Northam chooses not to do that and remains in office, he will be challenging lawmakers to try and remove him.
The threshold for impeachment in Virginia is a high bar, as it should be. It’s about malfeasance on the job, not morals and values that an elected official held 35 years ago, however repugnant. Surviving in the job is a low bar, and one that Northam, if he stays, will be striving to clear many times over every day he remains as governor.
Virginia Democrats will be fighting for control of both chambers of the legislature in November, and next year, Virginia is an electoral prize for Democrats—but only if their core African-American constituency is excited about their party and turns out. In the capital of the Old Confederacy, Northam must do the right thing. Stay or go, there is no room for error.