Here’s a surprising story from D.C.: once the Syria situation pivoted last week, the Senate moved to a bipartisan energy bill and one white, Republican dude Senator decided to singlehandedly derail it with a totally unrelated amendment bashing Obamacare. In this case, it was Senator David Vitter (R-LA) trying to prohibit Members of Congress and their staff from receiving any federal contribution toward their health insurance—bullying his way to collapsing the first (and last) bipartisan energy bill in years. Okay, so that’s not surprising.
What did ruffle some feathers was how Democratic leadership responded: over the weekend, they drafted an amendment that targets Vitter’s personal history of soliciting sex workers by denying these same federal contributions toward health insurance coverage if there is “probable cause” that any lawmaker has solicited sex for pay. If you’re unaware of Senator Vitter’s story involving sex workers, start typing his name into Google and you’ll get “David Vitter diaper” as your first recommendation. No joke. He apologized back in 2007 with his wife at his side, but the whole thing is pretty ridiculous—even more so now that he’s a sitting Senator that got elected post-scandal.
As you can imagine, the reporters and bloggers have been all a twitter about whether this amendment move on the part of Democratic leadership is too “hardball.” Vitter himself believes it’s an ethics violation and wrote a letter to the Senate Ethics Committee calling the alleged amendment “bribery.” For their part, other Senate Republicans want the entire thing to go away—including the Senator from Louisiana’s Obamacare amendment, as nobody wants to face their staffs after effectively gutting their salaries.
I’m actually pretty proud of Democrats for playing out this approach. We all know that politics is personal, but for too long, the personal lives of the white men running the show in D.C. have been off limits. Stories of infidelity and indiscretion run rampant—it’s hard to spend any time here and not know which elected official is sleeping with someone they shouldn’t be. And yet these guys are never really held to task, even when they speak out against other Americans who might’ve experienced a misstep or are in need of a second chance.
For the 20 women Senators, however, the lesson of keeping a clean house was hammered home before they stepped into the political arena. These women knew that to be considered “qualified” for political office, they’d have to be perceived by voters as both smart/talented/effective and also likeable. And unlike men who run for office, women are expected to be well-dressed, use a non-abrasive voice, be approachable, all while maintaining a confident, strong leadership style. Cheating on your spouse as a lady politico is hardly the way to win a likeability contest—there’s no room in the balancing act for women politicians for much of anything beyond overachievement and apple pie.
It’s a somewhat cheeky argument that women don’t make personal mistakes in political office, so going after politicians like Senator Vitter who mess up and then gum up the works for everyone else will conveniently target arrogant dudes who deserve the hit… I stand by it for the most part. I also stand by the idea that putting the personal lives of politicians into honest-to-goodness political play could be a game-changer.
I imagine someday, we’ll honor our collective health and well being enough that we can use shame as a tool of political will-breaking just by pointing out that a mean southern Senator wants to limit people’s access to doctors. We’re obviously not there yet. But we are where pointing out that this same Senator slept around on his wife with the D.C. Madame’s girls is enough to get something done. Or in this case, not done. Perhaps it’s a strategy worth exploring.
The Pleasant Progressive