Two Democratic candidates for president — U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar — are expected to officially launch their campaigns this weekend. They, and more than a dozen others in the field, will spend the coming months putting their lives up for public scrutiny, in a shifting political landscape where the rules for judging behavior are being rewritten on the fly almost daily.

There is vanishingly little room for error, as the party struggles to apply new standards to questionable, controversial, or just plain bad behavior. It’s been just four months since the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, following a hearing where three 2020 candidates—Klobuchar, Cory Booker, and Kamala Harris—sparred with the nominee over sexual assault allegations. And barely a year ago, Democrats had to purge Senator Al Franken over sexual misconduct allegations, with some faulting his fellow Minnesotan Klobuchar for failing to call for his resignation, and others faulting 2020 candidate Kirsten Gillibrand for doing so too soon.

Now, a series of questions about past racism and sexual harassment have arisen, in rapid succession, from the Virginia statehouse.

Gov. Ralph Northam is denying that he had anything to do with a cringe-worthy photo on his medical-school yearbook page, but confessing to publicly appearing in blackface at around the same time. The possibility of his resignation surfaced an allegation of sexual assault against Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, from 2004. The next in line for succession, Attorney General Mark Herring, then pre-emptively admitted to donning blackface as a 19-year-old. This Thursday, state senate majority leader Tommy Norment—a Republican, unlike the other three—was shown to have been an editor of a 1968 college yearbook with blackface and other racist imagery and language.

The party’s 2020 Presidential hopefuls all made a quick call on Northam to resign. Julian Castro was first; Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders seemed slow by taking almost a full day. But most have been more circumspect about Herring. They have mainly spoken of taking the allegations against Fairfax seriously—but notably stopped short of the standard expressed during Kavanaugh’s confirmation, of believing the alleger above the accused.

American politics these days sometimes feels like a philosophy class, with a professor posing variations of a thought experiment on sexual and racial misconduct to challenge our assumptions. What if the allegations were from 35 years ago rather than five? What if he was 24 at the time instead of 17? Are several weak allegations worth more than one credible one? What if he denies it, but admits to a similar offense?

The Presidential candidates will be expected to weigh in on those questions—and then have others debate what standards to apply to allegations about their own past behavior.

It’s probably going to be messy, and in some cases unfair. But the process of sorting through new standards is probably necessary. And there’s no avoiding it now.

Rapidly Changing Attitudes

It’s not entirely surprising that this heightened scrutiny of past behavior is happening now. Trump’s polarizing presidency has elevated and hastened cultural shifts that were already brewing.

Generational, demographic, and cultural change has altered the playing field—something seen in real time in scandals such as Bill Cosby’s, as public reaction empowered more and more victims to speak out.
As more cases of sexual harassment and racist behaviors—including Trump’s—have been hashed out in public, it has increased awareness and understanding.

Like so much in America today, those attitudes have increasingly divided along partisan lines. Democrats—even white male Democrats—have become much more likely to side with alleged victims of attacks, and to condemn behaviors as racist, while Republicans have moved the other way.

In a new poll done for Huffington Post after the Northam revelations, people who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 agreed, by a massive 72-point margin, that using blackface for a costume is unacceptable. Those who voted for Trump called it acceptable, by a 10-point margin. Nevertheless, the Republican Secretary of State in Florida resigned last month over blackface pictures.

Partisanship seems to be influencing some of the responses to these revelations. The Virginia GOP has called for Lieutenant Governor Herring to resign—making them more purist on racial sensitivity, in this case, than both the Virginia Democratic Party and the national NAACP. Yet in the case of a Republican state representative in Florida, it’s the Democratic state party calling for resignation over a teenage blackface photograph, while Republican leaders there are not applying the Herring standard to that case.

And it’s hard not to see the similarities between Fairfax and Kavanaugh—and their accusers, both professors without apparent political or personal motivation to lie. Accuser and accused in the new case have even retained the same attorneys, respectively, as those in the prior one.

So, why the different response from many Democratic leaders and progressive organizations? Some have suggested that there is so far only one accusation against Fairfax, where there were others against Kavanaugh. Others note that they had opposed Kavanaugh’s elevation to a new, very powerful position, not calling for resignation.

Those distinctions aren’t holding up so well, however, and a growing number of Democrats—including Harris of California—have come around to siding against Fairfax. A similar shift took place a little over a year ago regarding sexual misconduct and U.S. Senator Al Franken. In both cases, it’s as if we were watching that professor lead the class through the thought experiment, to the realization that consistency required a change of heart.

More Eggs To Break

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren seems in danger of getting swept up by the mess. Her claims, over decades, to Native American heritage continue to haunt her bid for the Democratic Presidential nomination.
Few Democrats have patience for unsupported allegations that Warren used that claim to advance her career, or for the apparently bottomless media interest in the subject. And most are appalled by racist taunting from President Trump and others on the right.

Nevertheless, many are uncomfortable with Warren’s apparent insensitivity to the issue over most of her adult life, and even long after it came to light during her 2012 U.S. Senate race. Her DNA test last Fall, and campaign-style video touting its results, struck many as offensive and exploitative. Warren now concedes the failing, and has offered new apologies.

It’s back to that philosophy class again. Are we going easier on racial and cultural insensitivity toward Native Americans than we would if it was a different group? Is her decades-long minor sin worth less than a one-time horror such as blackface? Do most of us even understand tribal identity issues enough to know how to judge?
If the controversy stymies Warren’s plans, fairly or not, she won’t be the last through this wringer.

More blackface transgressions are sure to be unearthed now. Other racial revelations are sure to follow. So too a variety of sexual misconduct. It seems unlikely that the field of Democratic candidates will be immune.

Each will inevitably be judged against standards set in previous examples. Precedent is mixed, but currently leans toward condemnation and punishment over benefit of the doubt and forgiveness. There will undoubtedly be corrections made to that course; likely more than one. Many careers will be harmed, some deservedly, others perhaps not.

That’s better, though, than not examining any of these issues at all—or treating them all with a broad brush from the start. We need to collectively come to grips with these things, and class is in session.