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Why politicians rarely resign

It’s hard to make an elected official quit.

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam speaks from behind a podium.
Some have called for Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s resignation.
Alex Edelman/Getty Images

The politics of Virginia have been turned upside down by the revelations of past racist behavior by Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring, and by the accusations of sexual assault against Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax.

These stories have been met by a flood of demands for the resignations of the officeholders. Demands have come from members of both parties, but Democrats have more often tied their statements to the #MeToo movement and to the growing demand for “zero tolerance” of racism and sexism. (There’s evidence that Republicans have a far more negative view of #MeToo and are also less concerned about the misbehavior of their own politicians.) So far, all three have refused to step down, although Fairfax may yet face a formal investigation by the Virginia General Assembly. He could also be prosecuted in Massachusetts or North Carolina, where the alleged misconduct took place.

The call for Northam’s resignation is consistent with a practice of calling on individuals to step down for wrongdoing that has not been prosecuted or is not precisely of a criminal nature. The resignation of Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) in 2017 exemplifies this shift toward a “zero tolerance” approach. It fit the spirit of the #MeToo movement, but it also served the interests of the Democratic Party. At the time, a Senate runoff election was being waged in Alabama in which allegations of sexual misconduct had been leveled against Republican candidate Roy Moore. (Since there was a Democratic governor of Minnesota, there was no immediate danger of the party losing the seat.)

There is also some evidence that resignation from Congress due to personal scandal has become more common in recent years. Most notably, Sen. Bob Packwood (R-OR) stepped down in 1995 due to charges of sexual misconduct, although he was also facing a serious attempt to expel him from the Senate. Sen. John Ensign, a Nevada Republican, quit under similar circumstances in 2011. Reps. John Conyers (D-MI), Blake Farenthold (R-TX), Tim Murphy (R-PA), and Trent Franks (R-AZ) all resigned during the last Congress due to personal scandal.

But it is generally hard to make an elected official — especially an executive — give up an office. Business executives and political appointees can be fired. People can refuse to work with an entertainer like R. Kelly or Louis C.K. But few people can “fire” an elected official before the expiration of his or her term.

Impeachment is rare and difficult. Historically, 20 members of Congress have been expelled, but almost all of them were kicked out for supporting the Confederacy during the Civil War. The failed attempt by Thomas Jefferson’s allies to remove Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase established the norm that impeachment should not be employed as a political tool, while the public backlash against Bill Clinton’s impeachment further reinforced it.

Only eight governors have been impeached and removed from office, most recently Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich in 2009. Most of these governors had been involved in blatant criminal misconduct. Most states follow an impeachment process modeled on that of the federal government: a majority vote of the lower House and a two-thirds vote of the upper House. It’s not an insuperable barrier.

According to my own count, 95 governors have resigned from office since 1900. But 76 of them did so voluntarily in order to accept another job. Most often, they stepped down to serve in the US Senate, join a president’s Cabinet, or accept another appointive position such as an ambassadorship or judgeship. There might have been some cases where a governor was “kicked upstairs” to escape a political imbroglio, the most famous example of which came in 1950, when Harry Truman named scandal-plagued New York City Mayor William O’Dwyer as ambassador to Mexico. (Yes, it was a controversial decision.) But in most of these cases, the governor probably perceived of the new job as a promotion.

Five governors have resigned due to poor health. It’s also possible that this was a cover for a political problem, but the last governor to do so, Ella Grasso of Connecticut, died a few months after stepping down, so there’s some truth there. Three governors have resigned due to miscellaneous reasons that were essentially voluntary. Harold Stassen resigned during World War II to join the US Navy. Nelson Rockefeller resigned ostensibly to head two commissions but really to plan a 1976 presidential run. Sarah Palin resigned in 2009 to devote herself full time to being Sarah Palin.

Eleven governors have resigned due to scandal. Of those, nine faced an imminent threat of impeachment or criminal prosecution. Mostly recently, Eric Greitens of Missouri and Robert Bentley of Alabama stepped down rather than be removed by impeachment. Nobody in Virginia seems to have thought impeachment an appropriate remedy for Northam, although Fairfax might still face such a process. Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber and New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer quit while under ethical fire, although ultimately they were not prosecuted. Only New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey resigned in a situation in any way comparable Northam’s, essentially quitting out of embarrassment.

The “zero tolerance” doctrine demands that violators leave office immediately, but the political parties lack the tools to enforce it. There is little ability to force scandal-plagued politicians out of office. Many of them are already facing pariah status. Most will never stand for reelection: Northam is term-limited, and it seems unlikely that Fairfax will ever face the voters again.

Party leaders can appeal to a politician’s family. They can offer informal help with future employment. Staff and Cabinet members can threaten to quit. (That might have been an additional source of pressure on Northam had the Fairfax affair not exploded.) But barring the rare circumstances of impeachment or expulsion, there’s little ability to force elected officials out of their positions.

Our era of nationalized and negative partisanship cuts both ways. On the one hand, there is more national attention to these scandals than there was a generation ago. Cable news and social media can make a juicy story the topic of national conversation within hours. In an era when a nationalized party image tends to override personal characteristics, it’s not surprising that leading Democrats were quick to call on Northam to resign. The growing intensity of the 2020 presidential race probably contributed to the pile-on, as candidates wanted to show their outrage.

On the other hand, partisans are more reluctant than ever to accept a “loss.” While there were a variety of reasons for Attorney General Mark Herring not to face the same clamor for his resignation, perhaps the most relevant factor is that the Republican-controlled legislature would pick Herring’s successor. Impeaching any of the three Virginia politicians would require Republican help — and it doesn’t appear that the Virginia GOP sees any need to help Democrats escape their current predicament.

Ironically, it is not clear that the public shares the Democratic elite’s desire for “zero tolerance.” Public opinion polling on Northam varies but generally shows something less than universal support for the governor’s resignation. Even after Franken stepped down, he remained a popular figure with many liberal activists, and his antagonist Kirsten Gillibrand faces continuing skepticism from Democrats that appears to be thwarting her presidential ambitions.

There’s also evidence that the “zero tolerance” standard has a partisan edge: Polling shows that Democrats believe sexual misconduct is a problem for both parties, while Republicans see it as a problem only for Democrats. Through their continuing support for Donald Trump, Republicans have shown their willingness to overlook multiple accusations of sexual assault. They have shown that their tolerance for misconduct is well above zero.