Eliot Spitzer is running for office again, just like Anthony Weiner and Mark Sanford before him. This trio of would-be sex-scandal comebacks has prompted many to speculate that Americans are not as shocked by sex scandals as they once were, and that we live in an age that is setting a new bar for shamelessness. As the New York Times put it in the Sunday evening story announcing Spitzer's return: "His re-emergence comes in an era when politicians ... have shown that public disapproval, especially over sexual misconduct, can be fleeting."
There seems to be a pervasive sense that sex scandals were once career-killers, and that if Spitzer and Weiner succeed as Sanford did, they will have accomplished something rare indeed. But there are plenty of examples of politicians who weathered the storm of scandal and got reelected, from Louisiana Senator David Vitter, reelected in 2010 with 57 percent of the vote three years after admitting he patronized an escort service, to Bill Clinton, elected president after numerous so-called "bimbo eruptions."
Technically, neither Spitzer, Weiner, or Sanford was tossed out of office for his improprieties -- all three resigned or retired. We can't know whether they would have lost had they stood pat. (Being politicians, they likely consulted pollsters who told them things weren't looking good.) But Newt Gingrich's marital infidelities didn't drive him from office; Ted Kennedy declined to resign after Chappaquiddick and never lost a Senate election, though he didn't win the presidency. Back in 1884, Grover Cleveland was elected president despite publicly acknowledging an illegitimate child. After Arkansas Rep. Wilbur Mills was arrested for drunken driving in 1974, an Argentinian stripper jumped out of the car; less than a month later, Mills was reelected with 60 percent of the vote. Rep. Scott DesJarlais of Tennessee was recently reelected despite multiple affairs and a tape recording of the congressman, a medical doctor who opposes abortion rights, pressuring one mistress to have an abortion.