Saturday, February 2, 2019

Ralph Northam Has No Excuses, and Neither Do Democrats

This was no childish prank or drunken outing with the boys at a local honky tonk. Nor was it merely a simple lack of judgment. This was a med-school graduate in his mid-twenties who on his yearbook page had a photograph of a man in blackface and another man dressed in KKK garb.

There is no justification for this. None! Nor is there any excuse that passes the smell test. To even suggest there is offends any sense of decency a civilized society possesses. And for Democrats, this isn't just a political issue, it's a moral one. Ralph Northam, the Democratic governor of Virginia, did something profoundly wrong and he must be held accountable.

I don't want to hear any of the typical rationalizations that I've heard over the years. In the '90s, progressives covered for Bill Clinton. They were wrong. Over the last few months, Senator Kirsten Gilibrand has been facing backlash for demanding that Senator Al Franken resign after his sexual misconduct had been made public. They are wrong. This inability to hold members of their own party accountable for indiscretions is problematic and potentially fatal. Thankfully, it looks as though Northam isn't going to get the same mulligan that Clinton and Franken got.

There are calls for him to resign the governorship coming from virtually all the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates and many from within his own party. Unfortunately, he doesn't seem to be getting the message. Far from it. Northam, after issuing a public apology last night, is now maintaining he was not either of those two men in the photo. Really, Gov? Do you typically apologize for things you haven't done? Are you saying you didn't notice the blackface and hooded guys on your yearbook page when you graduated - 35 YEARS AGO?! Or that you spent three years at a medical school and never purchased a copy of its yearbook, yet took the time to submit to the school a photo of yourself dressed in a suit? Spare me. Be a man and own what you did, for God's sake.

Face it, whether you resign or not, your political career is over. So why not do the right thing and spare your state and party the embarrassment of having a closet racist in the governor's mansion of a valuable swing state going into a presidential election? There is an African American lieutenant governor by the name of Justin Fairfax who is more than qualified to do your job. You can begin your road to redemption by stepping down and turning over the reigns of power to him right now. And with February being black history month, it could be the last decent thing you end up doing in office.

And to Democrats, regardless of what Ralph Northam does or doesn't do, this episode underscores the need for every politician running for president in 2020 to do thorough opposition research on themselves to make sure there aren't any skeletons in the closet that could pop out. Because, trust me, they will. This isn't the '50s and '60s anymore. JFK may have slept with Marylin Monroe and no one cared. That world is long gone. Today, every misstep, every indiscretion, no matter the severity, can find itself on the front page of The Washington Post.

It is not enough for Democrats to say they hold the moral high ground against Donald Trump. They will have to prove it. And the best way they can do that is to have a zero tolerance for anyone in their party who crosses the line and engages in unacceptable conduct. Ever since Watergate, politicians have lost the benefit of the doubt with the electorate. Now in the MeToo era, the electorate's ability to forgive and forget is somewhere between zero and point one.

I know what you're thinking: Trump bragged about grabbing women's genitalia, cheated on all three of his wives and paid off two women to keep quiet over affairs he had with them on his way to winning the presidency. Why should Democrats be forced to behave like Mr. and Mrs. Clean when Trump was rewarded for behaving like a scumbag?

That is certainly a valid question, and one I'm sure political science students will be studying for decades to come, but as they used to say in Manhattan, that and a subway token will get you a ride on the 7th Avenue Express. Like it or not, Trump appears to have created an alternate reality in which there are two sets of rules: one for him and one for everyone else. While he lowers the bar to such a degree that he can virtually step over it, his opponents have to pole vault over theirs. No, it isn't fair, but unfortunately, it's a reality that Democrats will have to accept if they hope to win the White House next year.

As strange as it may seem, Ralph Northam may have done Democrats a huge favor. His response to this self-inflicted wound should serve as a wakeup call to all of them. The type of collateral damage that past candidates have suffered and in many instances survived will no longer be tolerated.

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