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Former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer is mobbed by reporters while attempting to collect signatures to run for comptroller of New York City on July 8.
Congressman Mark Sanford is squiring his mistress-turned-fiancee around Washington. Former Rep. Anthony Weiner looks like a lock for a runoff in New York City's mayoral race. And now ex-governor Eliot Spitzer is taking his black socks on the campaign trail.
Sent into exile for their sexual indiscretions — a foreign affair, a below-the-belt selfie and a stint as an escort's infamous "Client No. 9" — all three men are now back with a vengeance.
It's enough to make you wonder: Is the political sex scandal going the way of the hanging chad?
"The American voters are becoming more and more desensitized to the American political scandal," said Ron Bonjean, who was communications director for then-House Speaker Dennis Hastert when GOP Rep. Mark Foley was forced from office for sexual messages to male pages in 2006.
Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford and his fiance Maria Belen Chapur before a ceremonial swearing-in at the U.S. Capitol May 15.
"The more it happens, the more people get used to it."
"The 24/7 social media news culture destroys politicians during the scandal, but after it can help," added Bonjean, now a Washington crisis communications specialist. "So much news is consumed so quickly, it can feel like a million years since the scandal."
The days of being permanently banished from office for some garden-variety monkey business like 1988 presidential candidate Gary Hart appear to be over.
Some public servants caught in a compromising position don't even have to take a break: Louisiana Sen. David Vitter stayed in office and handily won another term in 2010 despite admitting a "serious sin" when his name appeared in a madam's black book.
"A good sex scandal isn't what it used to be, that's for sure," former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele said on MSNBC's "Hardball" this week. "Politicians today have figured out how to apologize."
And voters, he said, have decided that on-the-job performance trumps whatever happens between the sheets.
"At the end of the day, if you’ve got the trains running, what you do in your bedroom and what you do on your time is your business," Steele said.
The syndicated sex columnist Dan Savage thinks voters are employing a twist on the golden rule: do unto political animals as you would have them do unto you (if someone found out you were meeting escort Ashley Dupre at the Mayflower Hotel).
"There's this realization that with all of us living so much of our personal and private lives online, and everybody carrying around a porn production studio in their pocket in the form of an iPhone, we will all one day be disqualified from public life if this is the standard," he said.
"People look at Weiner and say, 'I've done it — and my kids are doing it," Savage added. "People want there to be a bit of understanding, leeway and compassion."
The amount of time a repentant representative has to spend out of public life seems to be diminishing, if Weiner's resurgence is any indication.
Spitzer waited five years after resigning as New York's Democratic governnor amid a prostitution probe to make his comeback bid by running for New York city comptroller. Weiner went from tweeting a lewd photo to leading a Democratic primary poll in just two years.
An undated photo taken from the website BigGovernment.com, run by conservative activist Andrew Breitbart, that purports to show former Rep. Anthony Weiner shirtless.
Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute of Public Opinion, said Spitzer's move could hurt Weiner -- not because he keeps sex in the headlines, but because he steals some of the spotlight Weiner has enjoyed because of his own scandal.
"There is only so much oxygen that goes around," Miringoff said.
Still, there are limits to the public's lenience. The nature of the offense and the sincerity of the apology determine who gets love from the voters.
"The question is: Is this the death knell for sex scandals? And the answer depends on the type of scandal and the skill of the politician involved in the scandal," said Alison Dagnes, a political science professor at Shippensburg University and author of "Sex Scandals in American Politics."
"When there is a sex-scandal involving infidelity, the voters will give that a pass. When there is an abuse of power, that is much harder for the voters to let go of, a la John Ensign," she said, referring to the Nevada Republican who resigned from the Senate in 2011 ahead of an Ethics Committee report that he broke federal laws covering up an affair with an aide.
Jason Decrow / AP
New York City mayoral hopeful Anthony Weiner on the first day of his campaign, May 23.
Experts say voters are far less likely to absolve a candidate for a dalliance with someone underage, shenanigans that smack of harassment or gay affairs. Family-values candidates who stray can leave supporters feeling betrayed.
"Under the umbrella of sex, there are some things that are impossible to come back from," said Brian Jones, a partner in the Washington consulting firm Black Rock Group.
"There is a point of no return but it's 'I know it when I see it.' People like redemption and everyone says that they did things that they have regretted. But what is the gradient is unclear."
The path to redemption has been well-defined.
"The equation is: Acknowledgement of mistake plus time plus running for the right office equals voters willing to consider you," said Jones. Having your wife stand by you doesn't hurt either, Dagnes said.
Larry Flynt, the porn king who runs the Hustler empire, has a side gig digging up dirt on two-faced Washington politicians. He agrees that breaking the seventh commandment is no longer a career-killer.
"Americans are just not interested in what's going on in someone's bedroom," Flynt said. "But what's very much alive is if the affair is associated with hypocrisy or corruption."
He sounded almost disappointed as he spoke about one of his current cases — a powerful Republican he claims is cheating on his wife.
"But it's just an affair," Flynt says. "So I don't think we're going to do it."
The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza and former RNC Chairman Michael Steele run through recent examples of "political second lives" for politicians accused in sex scandals, and discuss whether these scandals are no longer the career ender they used to be.
This story was originally published on Tue Jul 9, 2013 5:25 PM EDT