It’s hard to believe today, but when Ronald Reagan ran for president in 1980, it was considered a possibly significant liability that he would become, at the time, the first divorced person to assume the nation’s highest office.
Reagan clearly wasn’t the first president to have experienced something other than a completely happy and monogamous marriage throughout his adulthood. But the notion that his marital problems were publicly known — and not just the province of a nodding and winking D.C. press corps — was thought to be politically damaging.
Of course, in the end, Reagan’s very human background turned out to be a non-issue.
And today, in the aftermath of the presidency of Bill Clinton, and especially in the era of Donald Trump — a man who has been repeatedly and persuasively accused of sexual assault and publicly admitted to have engaged in countless trysts throughout the course of three stormy marriages — the idea that voters find relevant a candidate’s marital or relationship woes has almost certainly been laid permanently to rest. That said, the never-ending searches for internet “clicks” and last-minute votes continues to drive news outlets and rival campaigns to promote salacious headlines and references to “steamy” affairs and checkered martial backgrounds whenever possible.
Here in North Carolina, we’ve been witness to this phenomenon in recent days as opponents of the Republican and Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate have traded revelations and allegations regarding their opponents’ personal and marital improprieties.
First came word of Democratic nominee Cal Cunningham’s troubled marriage, including text messages showing that he might have had an extramarital romantic entanglement.
Soon thereafter arrived the news that the first of Republican incumbent Thom Tillis’s three marriages included allegations by his first spouse (to whom he was married twice) that he had committed “cruel and inhuman treatment” and that she had felt “unsafe and improper” in remaining married to him.
Should these matters be relevant to the campaign?
Well, obviously, that’s up to North Carolina voters to decide, but the suspicion here is that the response will likely be a near unanimous yawn.
After all, if someone with Donald Trump’s record of personal behavior can win the overwhelming support of the nation’s Christian conservative movement, as he did in 2016, it’s hard to see how the revelations regarding Cunningham and Tillis could motivate voters to switch sides in a campaign in which the candidates differ so sharply on issues of massive importance to the future of the nation.
When it came to Trump, Christian right voters pragmatically decided that his positions on abortion, LGBTQ equality and separation of church and state were vastly more important than his personal past as a playboy casino owner who made hush money payments to a porn star.
And so seems likely will be the case in the Cunningham-Tillis race.
For ideological conservatives, the notion that they would abandon Tillis’s pledge to seat more ultra-conservative nominees on the Supreme Court — based on his complicated marital record that featured some disturbing allegations — strains credulity.
Similarly, for progressives, the notion that they would abandon Cunningham and thereby significantly increase the likelihood that millions of Americans would lose their health insurance and abet policies that ignore the global environmental crisis simply because Cunningham has marital problems, is equally hard to imagine.
Polling conducted over the weekend in light of the Cunningham revelation, but prior to the news about Tillis, seemed to confirm this assessment.
None of this is to say that many North Carolinians of all political persuasions aren’t frustrated or even angered by the revelations. When it come to their politicians, most Americans still yearn for squeaky clean individuals like Barack Obama and Jimmy Carter – even as they also demand savvy and ruthless “dealmakers” who know both “where all the bodies are buried” and how to grease the political wheels like Lyndon Johnson, Reagan and Clinton.
When it comes, however to the massive battle of ideas in which the nation currently finds itself immersed and, in particular, the giant stakes in the 2020 election, it’s clear that Americans have become an extremely practical and hardheaded group. Much as they might wish it were otherwise, they understand that choices in politics can be crystal clear, even when they must be made between decidedly imperfect options.