Divorce And Politics

The American people no longer seem to care if their political leaders are divorced.

Divorce

Using Mark Sanford’s victory in the Republican runoff election in South Carolina earlier this week as a launching point, Buzzfeed’s Ruby Cramer notes that divorce no longer seems to be the problem for politicians that it used to be:

It cost Nelson Rockefeller the Republican presidential nomination in 1964, but divorce is now almost as common in political life as it is in America more broadly — an everyday and largely unmentioned feature of many public figures’ private lives.

Former Governor Mark Sanford’s ascent in year’s South Carolina special Congressional race this week isn’t just evidence of the increasingly short half-life of sex scandal fall-out — the former governor vanished for five days during his second term, presumably “hiking the Appalachian trail,” to visit his mistress in Argentina; Sanford’s swift return to politics also heralds the extent to which voters don’t seem to care much whether there’s a nuclear family on the ticket.

And indeed, a large club of state and federal lawmakers are doing just fine in their careers and campaigns, despite divorces, separations, and family arrangements you wouldn’t call traditional.

Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin and his wife finalized their divorce last month after four years of public separation. Asked if marital status matters less than ever to voters in his state and elsewhere, Shumlin said, “I haven’t really thought about it that much.”

“I’ve never had anyone even ask my about it, which is an evolution, I think,” Shumlin told BuzzFeed in an interview Monday afternoon, where he didn’t shy away from the topic. (His pet cats, he explained, “are with my ex.”)

“I can tell you that Governor Cuomo, myself, and now Governor Hickenlooper in Colorado, have not found it to be even an issue,” Shumlin said.

Shumlin is one of four divorced governors. The others are Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who lives with his girlfriend, Food Network star Sandra Lee, after an ugly, public 2003 separation and 2005 divorce from ex-wife Kerry Kennedy. Last summer, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper joined the group when he announced that he and his wife had made the “mutual and amicable” decision to separate. The other 46 governors are currently married.

And in Congress, the sampling of unwed lawmakers is even more widespread. A review of news reports and Roll Call’s member database shows that in the House of Representatives, 28 members are divorced, 12 are widowed, and 26 have never been married; and in the Senate, three are divorced, one is separated, and five are unmarried. Across both chambers, just under 15 percent of lawmakers — 75 in total — are without a spouse.

Outside of Washington, D.C., some of the country’s most influential names in politics remain unmarried — New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, who lives with his longtime girlfriend, has been divorced for 20 years — and Newark mayor Cory Booker, a 43-year-old Democratic Party darling and a likely candidate for Senate in 2014, has never been married, though he does date.

To be fair, Nelson Rockefeller faced many more obstacles in 1964 than his divorce, namely the rising tide of the libertarian/conservative alliance that would nominate  Barry Goldwater that year and which, eventually, would become the dominant force inside the Republican Party. Even if Rockefeller had never been divorced, he would have faced a tough road to the nomination anyway. At the same time, it’s clear that 50 years ago the fact that a politician was divorced was seen by many in both parties as a death knell to any ambitions for higher office. Indeed, 15 years later there were some people who wondered if the fact that Ronald Reagan had been divorced and remarried would have an impact on his ability to win over conservative voters in the 1980 Republican primaries.  As it turned out, Reagan’s divorce didn’t impact his campaign at all and the fact that he was elected the first President who had been divorced was seen as more of a point of historical interest than a scandal of any kind. Partly, Reagan’s ability to get beyond the divorce issue was the fact that it had occurred so far in the past. Reagan and Jane Wyman divorced in 1949 after a marriage of just nine years, and he was remarried to Nancy Davis by 1952. To a large degree, the issue was so far in his past that it likely barely mattered to anyone.

After Reagan, though, the entire idea that politicians who were divorced were faced with an insurmountable problem pretty much faded into the dust. We still had our share of political sex scandals, as Mark Sanford himself can well attest, but with the nations divorce rate near 50% it seems pretty clear that most voters don’t really care about whether or not the person they might be voting for had been divorced at some point in the past.

Of course, as Parker points out, it’s still not clear how far this new attitude goes:

Political strategists cite a shift in American public opinion on divorce as it becomes more widespread, and as “institutions like the church have less authority over their members,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic strategist who worked on Cuomo’s gubernatorial campaign in 2010. “If you look at the history of divorce in American politics, Nelson Rockefeller’s divorce from his wife, Mary, made it impossible for him to president in the ’60s. It was just not possible.”

Sheinkopf, though, said that during Cuomo’s bid for governor three years ago, his divorce — and his live-in relationship with Lee — never had an adverse effect on the campaign, or even came up in campaign meetings.

“It wasn’t raised or ever discussed,” said Sheinkopf. “I remember one story in the tabloids about it. I was asked to comment and said, it will have absolutely no impact on anything — and I was correct.”

Doug Muzzio, a political science professor at New York’s Baruch College, said “Sandra Lee’s lasagna recipe probably had more of an impact” on the gubernatorial race than Cuomo’s marital history.

Cuomo may put the limits of voters’ tolerance to the test if he runs in three years for the presidency, an office for which Americans have typically chosen someone they admire.

“Running nationally while living in sin could be a problem,” Muzzio said.

Personally, I’ve always assumed that if Cuomo does intend to run for President in 2016 or 2020 he would end up marrying Sandra Lee rather than living together. America has only had two Presidents in its history who were not married while in office, Thomas Jefferson who’s wife died before he became President and James Buchanan who was a lifelong bachelor. While we’ve becoming a far more socially liberal nation in recent decades, I’m not sure how comfortable Americans would be with a President who essentially had a live-in girlfriend. A Cuomo run, if he doesn’t marry, would be a real test of just how much things have changed, just as Sanford’s run this time around is a test, on a smaller battlefield, of the limits of public forgiveness and redemption.

There will be variations across the nation regarding this matter, of course. Politics aside, it would be hard to see Cuomo getting elected statewide anywhere in the Bible Belt, for example. Nationally, though, it seems clear that the divorce stigma for politicians died out a long time ago. President Clinton’s experience showed us that even extramarital affairs while in office aren’t necessarily a deal breaker with the American public. Now, we’ve got politicians like Sanford and Cuomo who seem poised to test just how far those limits actually go. It will be interesting to watch.

FILED UNDER: General, ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Tsar Nicholas says:

    Using Mark Sanford’s victory in the Republican runoff election in South Carolina earlier this week as a launching point, Buzzfeed’s Ruby Cramer notes that divorce no longer seems to be the problem for politicians that it used to be

    Reagan was divorced. And won two consecutive monumental landslides. That was decades ago. So I think to a certain extent this Ruby Cramer (whomever that is) of BuzzFeed (whatever that is) is giving us a sun rises in the east lesson.

    The other germane point is that Cuomo’s love life could not be more irrelevant. Liberals don’t give a crap. Independents won’t give a crap. Blacks in general elections vote in lock step, strictly by party identity. The same holds true for public sector union members and for other Democrat class and identity groups. Secular Republicans don’t give a crap. They’ll vote against Cuomo, but not based upon whether he’s got a wedding band on his finger. The only people who’d care about this item wouldn’t in any event be voting for Cuomo. We’re talking there about the pious right. Either they’d be voting GOP or staying home and not voting. Six vs. half-a-dozen.

  2. Ron Beasley says:

    With over 50% of marriages in the US ending in divorce it has become the norm.

  3. Dave says:

    It reminds me that it has never made that big of a difference. If Grover Cleveland could win two elections in the 1880’s and 1890’s having publicly admitted fathering an illegitimate child, you would’ve thought marriage and marital indiscretions wouldn’t have mattered all the much into the 1960’s. But then again maybe fathering kids out of wedlock has always been seen as more forgivable than divorce.

  4. michael reynolds says:

    I find myself in the unusual position of being somewhat conservative on this. If it’s just you and your wife, fine, get divorced. But if there are kids involved, and you’ve chosen to bring kids into a situation that you now can’t handle, that’s not some small thing. By the time you have kids you should know whether the marriage is going to hold together or not. In that case you haven’t just failed as a spouse (meh) you’ve failed as a parent. Not okay, not cool, you may not put your kids through that just because you feel like it. Grow up before you decide to teach someone else how to grow up.

  5. legion says:

    Divorce?!? Really? Divorce hasn’t been a problem for politicians since the 50s – it’s the scandal that leads to the divorce that’s the problem. Talk about burying the lede…

    the former governor vanished for five days during his second term, presumably “hiking the Appalachian trail,” to visit his mistress in Argentina

    Saying “divorce” was Sanford’s problem is like saying Hitler’s big hurdle was his silly mustache.

  6. Rob in CT says:

    @legion:

    Yep. That.

    Also, I second Michael’s take on marriage, divorce and parenthood generally (not that it’s especially applicable to making voting decisions, mind you).

  7. matt bernius says:

    […] Sanford’s run this time around is a test, on a smaller battlefield, of the limits of public forgiveness and redemption.

    I think people are reading WAY to much into Sanford’s success in the primary. BTW, if this was Anthony Wiener winning back an NYC congressional or city council seat, I’d have the same reaction.

    Remember: The first district was Sanford’s district when he was a Congressman. They elected him three consecutive times before he became Governor. This was his home territory. The fact, even with all of that, that he *only* got 57% of the vote suggests that there might be some issues with the current narrative.

    Let’s wait until Stanford, or anyone other person in a similar position, wins a Statewide popular election before people start to make proclamations.

  8. @michael reynolds:

    There’s also, I think, a difference in what exactly lead up to the divorce. If it was a case that the marriage wasn’t working out and a mutual decision was made to end it, that’s one thing. It’s quite another if you end up in a Sanford or McGreevey situation where the divorce was the result of a massive betrayal of trust on the part of the candidate.

  9. stonetools says:

    I agree that a test of whether Andrew Cuomo will run for president is whether he marries Sandra Lee. Wonder how she feels about that!

    The leading edge world wide here is Australian Prime Minister Julia Gilliard. She is an unmarried woman with no children, a boyfriend, and who is an admitted atheist, to complete the trifecta. While many Australians disagree with her, its not about her living arrangements. She says (correctly in my view):

    “I think it would be inconceivable for me if I were an American to have turned up at the highest echelon of American politics being an atheist, single and childless.”

    I think we could see a Democratic field that will include a woman, a single person, a childless person, and a divorced person. They won’t all be one person, though.

  10. Scott says:

    I think the issue with Cuomo or Bloomberg will be the obsession of who will be the First Lady. Most don’t care if politicians are shacking up; however, the First Lady position is now an institution. I don’t think First Girlfriend will cut it.

  11. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Not okay, not cool, you may not put your kids through that just because you feel like it. Grow up before you decide to teach someone else how to grow up.

    Real world knocking here, Michael. I guess I should have stayed married to the crackhead whore my wife had become complete with all the guns and ex-con lowlifes, the brawls in the street that she decided to get involved in, the fraud she perpetrated on 2 old men living on fixed incomes, etc, etc.

    For the sake of my children.

    For the sake of other people’s children, let me suggest that you don’t go around telling other people what is good for their children from your holier than thou pedestal when you don’t have a clue as to what kind of hell they are living in.

    And for the record, my ex is now doing her 2nd stint in prison.

  12. C. Clavin says:

    The only waythis matters to me is if the specific politician is being hypocritical…and holding others to a standard they themselves are unwilling or uncapable of meeting.
    An immediate instance would be Mark Sanford opining on same sex marriage. He made a vow…broke it…lied about it…and then decides he is somehow qualified to judge whether a gay man or woman can love who they want, or not.

  13. Semi-related…I was watching “The Mindy Project” last night (Yeah, it’s “my show,” so what?) and there was a joke about Danny Castellano being very Catholic. He’s so Catholic that whenever he goes to another church he comes out even more Catholic.

    And yet, he’s divorced. My first thought was “Uh oh, writers made a boo boo.” Second thought was…..no, that’s quite believable, actually.

  14. C. Clavin says:

    @ Ozark…
    Micael Reynolds is more than capable of defending his own point of view…but as an observer…I would say

    “Yeah, what Michael said, except in the odd case like Ozarks”

  15. michael reynolds says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    You didn’t know she was a “crackhead whore” before you got married? Before you had kids? No inkling that maybe you shouldn’t be creating lives? I’m sorry, but I doubt that.

    Look, I’m not saying everyone with kids who gets divorced is a bad person. I don’t do a lot of moral condemnation — after all, I’ve known myself my whole life. But people take a casual attitude toward having kids and the obligations involved. People put more thought into buying a car or house. These are human lives and if you think your wife is the sort of person likely to be unable to raise them then don’t have kids to begin with.

  16. stonetools says:

    I think the the ideal of an American President is that you are a happily married male. Anything else, and you lose points. There is a a sliding scale that starts with married , but problems, then divorced and remarried. That’s still better than single and “dating” , and then far behind that would be say single and childless, because people would just conclude you are secretly gay. Thats OK for Cabinet positions (Reno) and Supreme Court Justices ( McReynolds, Kagan) but not for Presidents.
    An explicitly gay person (single or married) will not be President in my lifetime.

  17. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @michael reynolds:

    You didn’t know she was a “crackhead whore” before you got married? Before you had kids? No inkling that maybe you shouldn’t be creating lives? I’m sorry, but I doubt that.

    No I did not. Why? because she wasn’t. Hell, she didn’t even drink. Michael, I love you (in a manly way… wait a minute… is that homo?) 90% of the time I agree with you, (more often than not I click on a thread and you have already said what I wanted to and I can just shut the f/ up) 5% of the time you make me wince… not because you are wrong but because you play into every right wing nutwad myth ever created… the other 5% of the time…. You are a sanctimonious prick.

    The world does not conform to your view. Let me remind you of what you have said so often before: “I am lucky.”

    As to my part in the whole passion play…. I am an enabler. I took care of my sons, I desperately tried to save my marriage. When I could not, I desperately tried to save the mother of my sons. When I could not, I embarked on a 12 yr odyssey to save my sons.

    I am not even going to try to explain to you what I have been through because you couldn’t know or understand.

    I’m sorry, but I doubt that.

    Spoken like one who has never been tested.

    Michael, did you ever go to see your son , knowing you wouldn’t, but wondering if you might look down the barrel of a .45? No? You are lucky. I tip my hat to the lucky, but let me assure you, if you would have faced the same? You might very well be dead. Why? Because I know it could be me. The fact that you think it could never happen to you, tells me all I need to know.

    You know the difference between me and all the people who think it couldn’t happen to them?

    It happened to me. And I know they are human too.

  18. michael reynolds says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    the other 5% of the time…. You are a sanctimonious prick.

    I think you’re being generous.

    And you’re right, I’ve been lucky. I met precisely the right woman through no great virtue of my own. (You’d be wrong that we weren’t tested, but that’s another matter. Someday over a Scotch.) I waited until I was old and rich-adjacent and had been with her for 20 years before we had one kid and adopted another. Aside from a close call early on (our son was a preemie) it’s been mostly smooth sailing.

    I hereby retract my earlier sanctimony.

    But I suspect you’d agree that in general it would be lovely if people put a bit more thought into having kids.

  19. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @michael reynolds:

    But I suspect you’d agree that in general it would be lovely if people put a bit more thought into having kids.

    Indeed I would, but I never regretted either of mine. Not the time I jumped into rush hour traffic to save my oldest, or the time I prayed for my death whilst standing at the side of a bloody gurney holding my youngest who got run over by a car…. (then prayed for my ex to die because it was ALL HER FAULT.. DIE DIE DIE, you BITCH….)

    I think you’re being generous.

    Just honest, Michael. And to be really honest? I can be a sanctimonious prick with the best of them.

    And you’re right, I’ve been lucky. I met precisely the right woman through no great virtue of my own.

    And I got lucky too, the 2nd time around. I am the luckiest man alive (tho you may disagree)

    (You’d be wrong that we weren’t tested, but that’s another matter. Someday over a Scotch.)

    We’re all tested, I just meant not in the same way.

    Lagavulin if you will… I like the peaty stuff. Tomorrow brother….

  20. Tony W says:

    @michael reynolds:

    I hereby retract my earlier sanctimony.

    I think this is the core of the problem with conservatism in general – @OzarkHillbilly clearly lives in very different circumstances than Michael. Each construct his/her worldview based on that environment, but Real Conservatives(TM), typically, do not recognize new facts and rarely “retract [their] earlier sanctimony”. Instead they double-down on the craziness – reinforcing their earlier position and earning the respect of those who have not yet seen the light.

  21. wr says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: I love you two guys. (Per OzarkH, in a totally non-gay way.) Glad you’re not fighting anymore.

  22. grumpy realist says:

    @Scott: Well, there was what we were going to call Newt’s wife if he ever got elected POTUS….First Slut?

  23. grumpy realist says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: Lagavulin? What about Laphroig?

    Are there any other peaty malts out there?

    (I curse the day my boyfriend introduced me to single malts. Damned expensive hobby!)