It's all about timing, sincerity, personality and likability. The career of Bill Clinton is proof that major mistakes don't have to be fatal.
The holiday season is a "kind, forgiving, charitable, rather pleasant time," said Charles Dickens in "A Christmas Carol." Recent events in national and local politics are testing Americans' and Utahns' willingness to forgive the peccadilloes of leaders and candidates. At the risk of being labeled Scrooges, we explore the "forgiveness factor" in politics.
GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain ended his campaign after accusations of sexual harassment and an extramarital affair. Conservative voters remain upset with Mitt Romney for decade-old "flip flops." Yet Newt Gingrich is topping the polls because voters are forgiving his adulterous past and numerous policy reversals. Why the inconsistency?
Pignanelli: "It's far easier to forgive an enemy after you've got even with him." ~ Olin Miller
Cain provided a great service to this country — by illustrating in a clear manner how a politician should NOT respond to controversy. If the pizza magnate had disclosed early that there were issues with employees and a mistress — but had received forgiveness from his wife and family — he could ask the same from voters. Without the dodges and weaves to avoid accusations (real and perceived) he would be the established front-runner for the Republican nomination.
Conservatives remain suspicious of Romney because his articulations of recent position changes are made without conviction. Gingrich exposed and then embraced his foibles long ago, while begging forgiveness. He has been all over the issue map, but his enthusiasm for the newest stance instills confidence.
Further, Gingrich distracts potential barbs by throwing verbal grenades against conservative foes: the liberal establishment, the media and President Obama. In the political world, his support from GOP voters IS consistent behavior.
Webb: It's all about timing, sincerity, personality and likability. The career of Bill Clinton is proof that major mistakes don't have to be fatal. His campaigns survived serial "bimbo eruptions" and his presidency withstood major policy changes, a sexual relationship with a White House intern, outright lies, betrayal of his high-profile wife and intense late night TV jokes.
A lesser politician would have been destroyed. Clinton today enjoys status as a senior statesman, beloved in some circles. He was warm and likeable enough that his flaws made him seem real, and many voters forgave him.
The flip-flopping image dogging Romney is minor by comparison, but his buttoned-down demeanor and perceived lack of warmth make it harder for ordinary people, especially already-suspicious conservatives, to connect with him, thus magnifying any weaknesses. The loquacious Gingrich, despite serious baggage, is managing to come across as genuine and likable. The Gingrich bubble, however, could easily still burst.
Utah politicos are tracking how West Valley Mayor Mike Winder deals with his fake identity scandal, in which he misled media editors. Will voters deliver the gift of forgiveness if he runs for Salt Lake County mayor in 2012?
Webb: Winder demonstrates remarkable self-assurance and resilience in the wake of serious mistakes. He maintains high visibility and is saying and doing the right things. Long term, he can restore his reputation and have a bright future in politics. But 2012 is too early to reclaim the confidence of voters.
Pignanelli: Winder is an accomplished American political historian, but he has learned nothing from those he studied. Bits and pieces of his pseudo-journalistic antics continue to dribble out. Dragging out the process and trying to rationalize his behavior through the excuse of poor media coverage prevents forgiveness. Further, Winder's political persona is one of a wholesome clean cut reformer from an established Utah family. Any action other than a full exposure of his activities — without justifications or excuses — violates his "brand" and breeds doubts among voters as to sincerity.
Given Utah's unique culture and history, are voters more likely to forgive politicians' mistakes, or are they held to a higher standard?
Pignanelli: Utahns are remarkable. There are numerous examples of officials elected after the appropriate penance was paid (some are serving today). The best advice is for politicians to "man up," detail everything that happened and beg for forgiveness. I am comfortable using this politically incorrect phrase because almost all politicians who encounter ethical/moral dilemmas share my gender.
Webb: Political scandal in Utah goes way back, to Douglas Stringfellow, a one-term congressman in the 1950s, who lied about his war record, to Allan Howe, who was arrested in a police prostitution sting in the mid-1970s. Those guys didn't recover.
But repentance and forgiveness are considered divine and much-appreciated principles in all religions, and certainly within Utah's dominant religion. And surely among all flawed and imperfect humans (that's you and me — and especially Frank!). And, interestingly, those Sunday School-learned "steps of repentance" — recognition, remorse, confession, restitution and future avoidance — work pretty well in earning forgiveness in politics, as well as in meetings with ecclesiastical leaders.
Politicians should be held to a higher standard. And when they make a mistake, they should pay for it. But redemption — political and otherwise — is certainly possible for those who sincerely and willingly follow the steps required to win back support and confidence of citizens.
Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and Deseret News managing editor. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as minority leader. His spouse, D'Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, is a state tax commissioner. Email: email@example.com.