I’m not sure American voters have ever faced as tough a moral dilemma as they did 128 years ago.
The election of 1884 pitted Grover Cleveland, the Democratic Governor of New York, against James G. Blaine, a Republican from Maine who had previously served as Speaker of the House of Representatives. Cleveland was known as “Grover the Good” and had quickly risen from Mayor of Buffalo to Governor of New York, mostly due to his willingness to attack the corruption and scandal within the Democratic political machine Tammany Hall. Blaine, on the other hand, had missed out on his party’s nomination in 1876 and 1880 due to his history of scandal. Blaine was particularly fond of selling his political influence to businesses in exchange for kick backs and sweet heart deals. Cleveland supporters chanted “Burn, burn, burn this letter!” and “Blaine, Blaine, the Continental liar from the State of Maine!” throughout the campaign. A faction of the Republican party (eventually known as the “Mugwumps”) were so dissatisfied with Blaine’s nomination that they actively campaigned for Cleveland.
Because of this stark contrast in moral character, the nation was stunned when The Buffalo Evening Telegraph published a story in July that Cleveland had fathered a child out of wedlock (commonplace now, but a huge deal in 1884) and that the child had been put in an orphanage after his mother was institutionalized. Cleveland’s campaign met the charges head on, admitting the affair and stating that Cleveland supported the child and gave him his surname despite a lack of proof that the child was his (the child’s mother did not exactly have a chaste reputation). The hope was that the scandal could be spun in way that showed Cleveland as a generous benefactor atoning for a mistake rather than as an adulterer and deadbeat dad. This did not stop Blaine supporters from chanting “Ma, Ma, where’s my pa?” for the remainder of the campaign.
Suddenly, voters were faced with a decision. Should they vote for Blaine, a man who was faithful to his wife but tainted with political scandal, or Cleveland, a man marked by integrity in his political life but unable to keep it in his pants? The remainder of the campaign was characterized by each side stating its case as to which type of integrity was more important.
I mention all this because to hear some Republican voters tell it, the 2012 Republican primary is along the same lines as 1884. They admit that Newt Gingrich has personal issues, but then bring up things like Romney’s record at Bain Capital (a record which even Ron Paul has defended) to try and tarnish Romney’s business and political integrity and portray it as being worse than Newt’s sexual escapades. They essentially want to pit Newt as Cleveland against Romney as Blaine (putting aside the fact that most have probably never heard of either Cleveland or Blaine).
But in reality, Newt is both Cleveland and Blaine, while Romney is neither. The biggest “scandal” associated with Romney is that when he worked at Bain Capital, he did his job excellently. Gingrich on the other hand has had not only personal scandals but political ones as well.
As Speaker of the House, he shut down the government, and nearly destroyed the Republican Party as a result, because he felt slighted by President Clinton. He later was charged with 84 ethics violations, eventually becoming the only Speaker ever to be disciplined by his peers (in an overwhelming and bipartisan vote), and he eventually resigned from Congress in disgrace. Since leaving Congress he has repeatedly traded upon his political clout, earning $37 million as a lobbyist and making a living off the taxpayers’ money by receiving $1.6 million from Freddie Mac as it was contributing to the housing market meltdown. I cannot think of another candidate in recent memory who has parlayed political influence into personal wealth as often and as egregiously as Newt Gingrich.
But the real lesson of 1884 is not that one type of integrity is more important than the other. It’s that in the end, integrity never really mattered. Cleveland won the presidency, not so much because the voters chose political integrity over personal integrity, but because a Republican preacher in New York, speaking at a Blaine event late in the campaign, spoke against the Democrats as the party of “rum, Romanism, and rebellion.” Rum referred to the Democratic opposition to prohibition, and Rebellion harkened back to the Civil War (a common theme in Republican politics of the late-1800s). But Romanism was a bit of anti-Catholic prejudice, which did not go unnoticed in New York City and ended up costing Blaine the election. Many Catholics switched allegiance from Blaine to Cleveland, who won New York by just over 1,000 votes. Had Blaine won New York, he would have won the election despite his history of scandals.
See, in 1884, most voters didn’t care whether Blaine or Cleveland were men of integrity. They just voted according to political allegiance. The same thing is happening in 2012. People who still won’t forgive Bill Clinton want to forgive Newt Gingrich because it suits their politics to do so. People who see scandal in Romney but not in Newt see what their politics want them to see. They might talk of “forgiveness” and “learning from his mistakes” or any number of things to whitewash his record, but it all boils down to politics. The problem is that in reality, integrity and moral character should matter at least as much as someone’s politics (at least for Christian voters).