The voter-elected official relationship is just another kind of relationship. And a lot of the same rules apply to it as to others. They’re useful in considering questions like those emerging in recent days about what to do about people like Roy Moore (elect him? expel him?) or Al Franken (presumably, various options).
Consider romantic relationships. When dating, participants consider regularly whether this is something to continue or drop, and (cf. Seinfeld, for example) sometimes do that for very slight reasons. Once married, there’s a tendency to cut a little more slack; promises for better and for worse were, after all, made, and the reality is that no one is perfect.
This actually relates to the Moore and Franken (and other) cases.
In the Alabama Senate election, Republican Moore has run into a swarm of charges related to his involvement with much younger women and girls; you’ve doubtless seen the reports so they won’t be reiterated here. In this case, voters in a very Republican state are deciding between Moore and Democrat Doug Jones; the race is considered competitive in large part because of the recent charges.
Should they be a consideration? Of course they should. They relate to what kind of person this is who wants to represent a state in the United States Senate and become one of the highest-level elected officials in the country. (And to be clear, the accusations which are quite serious are more than just credible, and the news reports about them have been thoroughly sourced, and no meaningful rebuttal from the candidate or anyone else has appeared.) Is it the only reasonable consideration? Of course not. The consequences of such elections range far beyond the personal quirks and foibles of any one candidate – things like tax policy and health care, among many others, are in the balance – and the confliction of conservative Republican Alabamans is not in that sense unreasonable. (All of that is putting aside the merits of the policy and philosophical arguments involved, which is another story. In my view, on those grounds, the case against Moore was ironclad long before “the women” even were heard from.)
Suppose Moore is elected. Should he be expelled from the Senate, as some Republican senators have suggested? Sitting here now, I’d have to say no.
If the voters decide to elect a person, well informed of the case at stake, the Senate had better have an extremely high bar if it wants to overrule them. It had better have either important – shattering – evidence against Moore newly developed since the election, or else reason to believe the national or at least Capitol security would be put at serious risk if he stayed in the Senate, of which there’s been no indication so far. After all, every Senator ever expelled in the nation’s history, one in 1797 and the others in the Civil War, were ousted because of treason or rebellion against the nation. Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo has an excellent piece on the significance of expelling – and the dangers of opening the doors to it under any but the most extreme cases. The Moore case would be distasteful, ugly and politically embarrassing (and maybe harmful) for Republicans, but it doesn’t seem likely to rise to the status of emergency.
In other words, once elected, an elected official has passed dating and gotten hitched. The standards for dissolution need to be a lot higher.
What to do about Franken, now involved in a sexual harassment case as well, then becomes a little clearer. It is true that the voters of Minnesota did not have the specifics of the newly-related harassment case, for which Franken has apologized, in front of them when they twice elected him to the Senate. But they had an ample opportunity to gauge what sort of person he was, and their choice should be given a good deal of deference.
But beyond that, Franken is – as Moore would be if elected – a member of the Senate, in effect “married”, and the bar for a dissolution ought to be pretty high. In other words, as I said about Moore: Reason to believe the national or at least Capitol security would be put at serious risk if he stayed in the Senate. Of which there’s no such evidence at hand.
That doesn’t mean the Senate ethics panel shouldn’t look into the case, or or decide that a reprimand of some kind shouldn’t be handed out; maybe it should. But if (and I’d say this bearing in mind both Moore and Franken) that if we get into a practice of expelling or driving out of Congress every member who ever had a tawdry piece of their past exposed, we might soon be left with few members, and few really good members of the public who’d want to run for the job. Which already is something of a problem.
Yes, it’d worth knowing these things about our elected officials, and people who would become one of them. They’re worth factoring into our decision-making. But as attention-getting as they are, and as character-insightful as they sometimes can be, they shouldn’t overwhelm all else.