How Politics Works: The Ensign Edition

Eric Massa (D-Tickleland) is gone from Congress. Yet scandal-struck Republican Sens. John Ensign and David Vitter remain ensconced. Even though the New York Times last week disclosed new information that Ensign might have violated ethics laws by helping Doug Hampton—the husband of Ensign’s former lover—land lobbying work and by passing $96,000 to the Hamptons, Ensign is still hanging on to his job. But Politico reports that he is a lonely soul in the Senate:

The Nevada Republican admitted in June that he’d had an affair with an aide. But rather than putting the problem behind him, the admission was just the first in a long series of damaging revelations that have left other senators wary of working too closely with him—a significant problem in a clubby body in which success depends on building relationships with other members.

“Like Vitter, Ensign doesn’t get invited to a lot of press conferences because no one wants their boss in a photo op with them,” said one top GOP aide, referring to Louisiana Republican Sen. David Vitter, who was identified in 2007 as a client of an alleged prostitution ring.

“He’s been so isolated for so long that I almost forget he’s still here,” said another senior Senate Republican aide.

That’s to be expected. Ensign is damaged goods, and he may just be holding on to the job until 2012, when he’s up for reelection. A tainted last hurrah while you’re under investigation is better than no hurrah while you’re under investigation.

But one curious aspect of the Ensign endgame is what Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid, a fellow Nevadan, is saying about Ensign: nothing.

Ensign has a nonaggression pact with his home-state colleague, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), and Reid declined to comment when asked about the Republican’s effectiveness amid scandal.

“That is an issue that is now handled by the Ethics Committee and whatever is going on with the Justice Department,” Reid told POLITICO. “It’s something — I need to let them do it, and I don’t need to offer my opinion.”

Reid might be abiding an age-old rule of politics: when an opponent is self-immolating, don’t get in the way. Or perhaps he is being a gentleman. Reid, though, has plenty of trouble in Nevada, where he faces a tough fight for reelection this year. And maybe he figures it’s best not to poke at another under-fire Nevadan while he’s trying to save his own job. In any event, it does put the Democrats at a disadvantage. Ensign should be a top target for the Dems. After all, his scandal involves sex, money, and lobbying. (It doesn’t get more Washington than that!) This is great ammo for the Ds to use against the Rs. Yet, there hasn’t been much of a Democratic offensive. That could be because of the clubbiness of the Senate, where scandal-snared senators are often left to wither on their own, instead of being used as political piñatas. But in this case, Reid and other senators should be a bit less polite—not only to serve political needs, but also to serve the public interest and protect the integrity of the Senate.


Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and the wealthy wouldn't fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2019 demands.

We Recommend


Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.


Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.