What should be the political consequences to John Edwards of his admitted affair with Rielle Hunter. Let's put aside for a moment, the fact that he lied about it and his odd claim that he had been 99% honest, I don't want to get into the "lying about sex" exception to the general admonition for honesty.
Should this end his political career?
Before conservatives and Republicans quickly assent, they ought to remember that John McCain may have done the same thing. Whether or not he took up with Cindy Hensley before his marriage to Carol McCain had ended in fact (if not in law as it most certainly had not), he apparently has admitted to running around with other women during that period of time. If Edwards career is over, why wasn't McCain's?
I actually don't think Edwards' political career should be over because of his dalliances. (There are, however, many other reasons to end it.) But I am reluctant to say that it doesn't matter or that it is entirely private - at least not at the level of the Presidency.
Certainly it does say something about his character although I dislike the part of our politics that destroys otherwise good people for getting caught in a piece of bad business which is comparable to what many others are guilty of but not caught at. I appreciate the we cannot know what goes on in someone else's marriage and that the cause of this type of thing can be complex. I also understand that we are flawed and no one of us is without sin (or, as we call them today, "mistakes.")
But, in a way, that is why it can't be ignored. It is hard to do the right thing. Fidelity is difficult and marriage, while it is a great blessing, is a lot of work. Yet it is vital to society. This was a grave betrayal of Elizabeth Edwards and the Edwards children and, in a way, of Rielle Hunter and, if it is his, her child. When engaged in by someone aspiring to the Presidency or Vice Presidency, it is scandalous in the theological sense of the word, i.e., it offends moral standards in a way that may discredit them or become a stumbling block to others.
A HuffPo blogger asks whether, in light of that affair, "Edwards care[s] less about poor people today than he did yesterday?" He notes that history has revealed extramarital affairs on the part of other leaders and suggests that they had nothing to do with how they governed.
Is it just that they did not get caught? Is it just that it was long ago?
In part, yes, it is. Edwards has modeled behavior that has been and is disastrous for poor people in particular. It is behavior with public consequences and, in public figures, must be condemned. One of the ways that happens is that he gets his time in the wilderness. In someone standing for our highest office, respect for doing the right thing seems to demand that John Edwards suffer public consequences for doing the wrong one.
In its immediate aftermath, John Edwards, just like Newt Gingrich, cannot expect to be a national leader. There may come a day, when a contrite Edwards, like Newt, can be rehabilitated. But it flouts our moral standards to reward him with a prominent speech at the Democratic convention or serious consideration for the Vice Presidency.
My guess is that Obama will do neither.