It’s amazing sometimes what politicians get away with.
Voters routinely say that they loathe fraudulence, that they abhor incumbents who say one thing and do another, that they’re jonesing to throw the bums out. Then they give a pass to a guy like Scott DesJarlais.
You may have missed what happened in Tennessee last Thursday, in a Republican congressional primary. (Actually, the story is still happening.) This one is a classic.
Congressman DesJarlais, a self-described “family values” conservative, was widely expected to succumb to his challenger, State Sen. Jim Tracy. Understandably so. Because surely the Republican voters in DesJarlais’ district wouldn’t reward an incumbent who publicly preaches conservative values (“pro-marriage and proud of it”) and anti-abortion zealotry (“all life should be cherished and protected”) – while, in private, engaging in multiple extramarital affairs and encouraging several women to have abortions.
That extreme degree of hypocrisy – a fundamental disconnect between what a politician practices and what he preaches – had to be a deal-breaker, yes? Uh, nope.
DesJarlais won anyway – by a margin, at last glance, of 37 votes. That’s not a typo. Roughly 69,500 people cast ballots last Thursday, and the initial winning margin was 35. That has since been updated to 37. There’s no automatic recount provision in Tennessee, so DesJarlais is probably in the clear. And you have to wonder how someone like that could’ve survived, and what goes through Republican voters’ heads when they vet the kind of hypocrisy they profess to hate.
The answers will soon become obvious.
Last year, DesJarlais was cited by CREW, the non-partisan Citizens for Responsibility & Ethics in Washington, as one of our most corrupt congressmen. That listing was a no-brainer. A licensed physician, DesJarlais was reprimanded and fined by the Tennessee Board of Medical Examiners in May 2013 for engaging in sexual relationships with two of his patients. At the time of those affairs, “pro-marriage” DesJarlais was married to his first wife.
Actually, there were more than two affairs. According to divorce court transcripts, released after he won re-election in 2012, there were as many as eight affairs (patients, co-workers, a drug representative). He also encouraged one of his lovers to have an abortion (according to the transcript, he scolded her for procastinating: “You told me you’d have an abortion, and now we’re getting too far along without one”), and he brandished a gun to intimidate his first wife during an argument. Oh, and I almost forgot: He goaded his first wife into having two abortions.
Under oath during his divorce proceedings, DesJarlais explained his reason for seeking the second abortion: “Things were not going well between us.”
Well. As reasons go, that seems a lot more liberal than carving exemptions for rape, incest, or the endangered life of the mother.
So here’s the deal, apparently: If you’re an average woman out there – and especially if you’re an indigent woman seeking public funding – DesJarlais says you don’t have the right to get an abortion; however, if you’re one of his women, you most certainly do have that right. Women who sleep with him apparently can get the Things Not Going Well in the Relationship loophole.
Back when the divorce records were released, Stephen Colbert had a great line: “DesJarlais stands adamantly against abortion, except when it endangers the political life of the father.”
Good luck trying to square DesJarlais’ private life with his public ideological purity. Since coming to Congress – he was swept into office in the 2010 tea-party wave (natch) – he has been so zealously anti-abortion that the National Right to Life Committee awarded him with a rating of 100 percent. But his ’14 GOP primary challenger, Jim Tracy, certainly believed that DesJarlais’ hypocrisy would make him beatable. One of Tracy’s negative ad mailings said: “Abortions. Affairs. Abuse of Power. We can’t trust DesJarlais to Fight for Our Values.”
Yet it appears that DesJarlais has scraped by anyway – in part because House incumbents rarely lose, in part because a lot of voters instinctively tune out negative attacks (regardless of how valid they are), in part because Tennessee conservatives hate President Obama and DesJarlais dutifully votes against everything Obama wants. And one of the Tennessee papers quoted a voter who probably nailed the biggest reason of all: “We’re in the South. We’re Christian. If you can’t forgive…”
There ya go! It’s a fabulous deal for these family-values conservatives, that they can egregiously misbehave in ways that flagrantly violate their public postures, and still get a pass from God. That’s how Mark “Appalachian Trail” Sanford was able to launch his South Carolina comeback and win a seat in Congress. When a conservative sins, he gets Christian forgiveness; when Bill Clinton sins, then it’s a “character issue” and a spur for impeachment.
You’d think that denying reproductive rights to women while advocating those same rights to women in one’s private life, in blatant breach of “family values,” would be deemed unforgiveable. But only in a more just universe.
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