Sex, Substance, and the Fate of Nations

You have to give American politics this much: it is not boring. In recent days, a New York Democratic congressman resigned amid allegations of sexual misconduct; the lawmaker denied the charges, though he did acknowledge the asexual groping of a male aide. "Now they are saying I groped a male staffer," former representative Eric Massa told Glenn Beck on Fox News. "Yeah, I did. Not only did I grope him, I tickled him until he couldn't breathe, and then four guys jumped on top of me. It was my 50th birthday. It was 'kill the old guy.' You can take anything out of context." In North Carolina, a judge ordered a former John Edwards aide to hand over any copies of an alleged sex tape featuring the former Democratic presidential candidate. Meanwhile, back on the Massa front, the ex-lawmaker accused the White House of driving him from office (he later recanted), and gave us the remarkable image of a nude confrontation between Massa and Rahm Emanuel in the curtainless showers of the House gym.

Then, in an impassioned speech on the floor of the House during a debate over Afghanistan, Rep. Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island said: "If anybody wants to know where cynicism is, cynicism is that there's one, two press people in this gallery. We're talking about Eric Massa 24/7 on the TV…We're talking about war and peace—$3 billion, 1,000 lives, and no press! No press!...It's despicable, the national press corps right now."

In Kennedy's formulation, the trivial was trumping the critical, and the media, craven and unserious, were doing the trumping. There is much to this critique (Al Gore makes a compelling case along similar lines in his book The Assault on Reason), but Kennedy should find some comfort in the fact that the people, broadly defined, are closer to his position than they are to the media's. When it comes down to it, voters are more interested in the substance of their own lives than they are in the sex lives of lawmakers they have never heard of before and will not again.

Still, in political circles, you are beginning to hear that it may be 2006 all over again, a year when it was the Republicans who were beset by scandals, and the seamy news out of Washington—a Republican congressman sending sexually explicit instant messages to pages—took on larger symbolic meaning. In the 2006 analogy, the ancien régime was corrupt and it was time for a change: hence the GOP's midterm losses.

I have a slightly different view. The voters gave the Democrats big wins in 2006 not because of Jack Abramoff or Mark Foley—remember them?—but because of Iraq and Katrina. (In his new book, Courage and Consequences, Karl Rove makes an interesting counter case.) In the end, elections are about big things—which, in 2010, depending on the fate of health-care reform, the unemployment rate, and the perennial variables of terrorism and national security, could be good or bad for the Democrats.

People have spent nearly a year now warning that President Obama risks suffering the fate of President Clinton in 1994. With obvious exceptions, however, Obama and the country would be well served if this administration could replicate some of the successes of the 1990s. Essentially prosperous and secure, the Clinton years provided us with a bridge between the Cold War and the war on terror; -between an industrial economy and an information one; between a -binary understanding of the role of government in our lives and, for many people, a more subtle grasp of the inter-play of public and private. As my colleague Howard Fineman points out this week, Bill Clinton is also a reminder of the basic seriousness of the American people. While the press and the political class obsessed over the 42nd president's sexual sins, the public kept his behavior in perspective, approving of his stewardship of the country and his management of its concerns.

What is in the headlines today—from tickle matches to -scuffling-in-the-wheelhouse stories about the White House staff—will not have much to do with whether the big things on the president's agenda are accomplished, or with the results of either 2010 or 2012. If Obama does well on the policy side, the people will give him credit. If the president does not do well, then the people will have to decide whom to blame: the White House or an obstructionist opposition bent on victory at all costs. And the people usually get it right.