Like most people, I was horrified by the med school yearbook photo of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam. Let me correct that- like most political people. While nearly every major Democrat in Virginia and America has called for Northam to resign, as well as some Republicans, Northam is still living in the Governor’s mansion in Richmond. He’s totally unmoved by the calls for his head. Even after his disaster of a press conference on Saturday, he’s still in office.
So what the hell are we going to do about it? Already the story is being pushed off the front pages, first by the Super Bowl, and now by the State of the Union. More people will announce 2020 Presidential bids, further burying the story. Soon, it will be forgotten outside of Virginia, then even inside. Northam can’t run for re-election anyway, and he will become less and less relevant. What are you going to do about it? Impeach him? Why would the Republicans go along with that, and make his Lt. Governor an incumbent Governor for 2021? They’ll argue he committed no crime- and they’re right. Even if we assume Northam is a full blown racist/Ku Klux Klan man currently, that’s only socially objectionable, not criminal. The picture is incredibly offensive and unworthy of a public official- but what are you going to do about it?
And how about that Lt. Governor, Justin Fairfax? On Friday night, he was the darling of the American left, which of course meant the Republican Party wanted to destroy him. By Sunday night an old accusation of sexual assault was pushed out into the open against Fairfax. Sure, there was nothing but the accuser’s word against his, but Republicans took absolute glee in noting the similarity in this case and that of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Even worse, some are noting that national Democrats shoved Al Franken for a lesser set of accusations, but aren’t pushing Fairfax out. Is any of this fair? No. Are the cases the same? No. It really doesn’t matter to these folks.
But does any of this matter? I guess it depends who you ask. Remember that just about a month before the 2016 Presidential Election the “Access Hollywood Tape” dropped against Donald Trump, where we could hear him say he could “grab ’em by the pussy,” talking about women in general. Against a backdrop of many sexual assault accusations, many assumed he was finished. National Republicans (not for the first time either) called on Trump to drop out. There were open talks about removing him from the GOP ticket. What did the outrage, in many cases for Trump, actually matter? It didn’t. He kept running. He won. In fact, his vote share (46%) was higher than his personal approval, average polling, or really any poll was showing him. Trump simply soldiered on, and all we can tell from the data is that more people were willing to vote for him than we had envisioned beforehand.
In Ralph Northam we see someone adapting to the post-Trump norm, while in Al Franken we don’t. Trump bet that the public didn’t care that he was a bad guy. Northam seems to be taking that same bet. Franken took a throwback to the pre-Trump days, when shame could push a politician out. The idea was that your first act towards forgiveness was to go away. Ralph Northam seems to get that if he resigns, he’s gone for good. Like Trump, he’s betting that people will move on. My guess is that if it works, you are seeing the new norm.
In Justin Fairfax, you are also seeing a challenge to the new norms. Republicans learned in the Franken case that the Democratic Party wanted to be “zero tolerance” on sexual impropriety, and that Franken left because of that. They don’t have the same level of proof in the case of Lt. Governor Fairfax, and so far they have been less successful. If they fail in this case, perhaps this doesn’t become the norm.
In the age of the internet and changing standards of what is and isn’t accepted, I suspect this current mess in Richmond is going to be common for a little while. Perhaps society will eventually become more forgiving of past transgressions and accusations, perhaps they will be even less so. It seems very clear to me though that if Northam survives this week as Governor, he probably survives his term. If he survives his term, the tradition of resigning amidst scandal will be the latest casualty of the Trump world. Right now, I’d probably bet on that.