June will mark 10 years since then-Rep. Anthony Weiner resigned over a sexting scandal. What’s notable is not that politicians have long behaved badly on Twitter, as the New York Democrat did by sending a woman not his wife a sexually suggestive photograph, but that he quit at all. Weiner said the distraction the embarrassment caused to his constituents and family compelled him to quit Congress.
It raises the specter that Democrats will no longer want to sacrifice their political careers when those on the other side of the aisle aren’t doing so.
A decade on, Rep. Matt Gaetz is showing the shame game has changed considerably — for Republicans, at least. The Florida congressman, previously known as one of former President Donald Trump’s biggest boosters on Capitol Hill, has become a national figure in the most unflattering way since news broke last week that the Justice Department is investigating whether Gaetz “had a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old and paid for her to travel with him.”
Gaetz denies any wrongdoing and says he’s not resigning. And his insistence on riding out the bad headlines in office may be a good political bet. After all, recent political history has shown lawmakers can get away with it — for a while, at least — if they’re willing to stay defiant even as they endure daily revelations about their allegedly sordid personal lives.
Republican lawmakers — perhaps inspired by the approach of unrepentant party leader Trump, who made no apology for his alleged misdeeds — have increasingly lasted well beyond their political sell-by dates. Democratic politicians in the modern political era have more often caved in to public pressure.
But as Gaetz breaks new ground in sheer obstreperousness, it raises the specter that Democrats will no longer want to sacrifice their political careers when those on the other side of the aisle aren’t doing so. Indeed, it might be safe to say that shame no longer has a place in American political life.
Gaetz is under investigation by the Justice Department over the allegations of a relationship with the 17-year-old girl, and that he paid for her travel across state lines. The probe is reportedly linked to a broader investigation of a Gaetz political ally, former Seminole County, Florida, tax collector Joel Greenberg, who was indicted in 2020 on sex trafficking charges and has pleaded not guilty.
In an op-ed Monday in the Washington Examiner, Gaetz characterized himself as a victim. “Folks won’t be surprised that bizarre claims are being made about me shortly after I decided to take on the most powerful institutions in the Beltway,” he wrote.
The response was similar, if less self-righteous, from scandal-ridden Republican House members such as Duncan D. Hunter of California and Chris Collins of New York. Both stayed in office for more than a year after federal indictments in 2018 — Hunter accused of misusing campaign funds and Collins accused of insider trading and lying to the FBI — before quitting upon reaching plea agreements with federal prosecutors. They were then spared prison time after being pardoned by Trump in his waning weeks in office.
While Republicans made some half-hearted attempts to push Hunter and Collins to do the right thing (their party leader stripped away their committee assignments, effectively giving the lawmakers little to do), Trump was teaching a master class on political shamelessness, starting with fall 2016 “Access Hollywood” tape revelations depicting the one-time “Apprentice” star boasting of sexual misbehavior.
Trump consistently refused to bow to scandal. He dismissed the episode as “locker room talk” and went on to score one of the biggest upsets in American political history. A string of allegations over other sexual indiscretions, business fraud, campaign finance violations and fomenting insurrection after the 2020 election did nothing to shake him.
In Gaetz’s case, House Minority…