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Real political scandals are rarely about sex

As the Trump presidency fades into the past, we are reminded of the sex scandal at its dawn. The Federal Election Commission has just dropped its probe into former President Donald Trump’s alleged hush-money payment to porn star Stormy Daniels.

Charges that Trump broke campaign finance laws in 2016 by not reporting the $130,000 payment to Daniels — perhaps thinking that a tawdry affair would hurt his electoral chances — dominated the national conversation for weeks. And like most political sex scandals, this one wasted an inordinate number of America’s brain cells.

I offer no opinion here on whether the FEC acted rightly or wrongly in not proceeding. Rather, the scandal was driven by the sex part, and had the unreported payment gone for a service of a less prurient nature, public interest would have hovered around zero. What energized the political opposition was the adultery piece.

The same thing happened over Bill Clinton’s tryst with his then-intern Monica Lewinsky when he was president. Here again, a male politician allegedly lied and may have broken the law, but the American people saw a married man hiding the fact that he betrayed his wife.

Both the Trump and the Clinton indiscretions involved mutually agreed-upon sex. And in both cases, the wives didn’t raise a public fuss, leaving the spectacle of a betrayed and injured mate off the table.

The story of the “Access Hollywood” tapes, in which Trump boasted about grabbing women by their privates, also ended in a puff of smoke. Supporters and foes alike thought this could end Trump’s chances of winning the election. It turned out that many regular people who listened to Trump’s vulgar monologue heard mainly “locker room talk.” As much as I disliked Trump, that was my impression.

How naive it now seems to think that these revelations would have derailed either of these men’s presidencies.

Partisans trying to scuttle the 2018 nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court jumped on charges of sexual assault dating back to his high school days. I found Christine Blasey Ford’s account that he and another student jumped on her during a drunken party to be plausible.

But what were the details, really? These were high school kids. According to Ford’s testimony, when the second student tried piling on the bed, they all fell off and she left the room. I can understand a woman fuming about that show of disrespect, but if this was a horrendous crime, why did she wait 36 years to go public with it?

I found fault with some of Kavanaugh’s dissembling, but I did not jump on Ford’s bandwagon. On the matter of sexual assault, I wanted to wait for an FBI probe. If I could do it again, though, I would be more skeptical of Ford’s timing.

The Trump scandal that truly bothers me revolves around serious charges that he committed tax fraud. When an American cheats on his taxes, other taxpayers — I’m looking in the mirror — must make up the difference. Whether the former president cheated on the third Mrs. Trump is not interesting to me, nor would it be shocking.

Although partisans obsess over them, sex scandals rarely alter the political landscape in a major way. And when the accusations smell of opportunism, they may actually help the accused.

In the 1998 midterms, after Republicans wasted months of the nation’s time on Clinton’s dalliance, Democrats picked up five seats in the House. Clinton finished his presidency with a Gallup approval rating of 65 percent, higher than Ronald Reagan’s.

And so, while sex scandals are colorful and easy to understand, they tend to evaporate. Doesn’t Stormy Daniels seem 100 years ago?

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Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop.

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