The House of Congress is no stranger to controversial figures, but there is something so disgustingly repugnant about the re-election of Congressman Scott DesJarlais that makes it very hard to look away. The fact that every incumbent Republican congressman in Tennessee, including DesJarlais, won re-election in 2012 should come as little shock to anyone who has examined the Tea Party’s influence among the states voters.
Like so many of his brothers in arms, DesJarlais's willingness to champion himself as a pro-life advocate in order to energize the previously apathetic far right has served him well since 2010. That is, right up until his own revolting personal hypocrisy became exposed. The laughable truth of Scott DesJarlais’s abortion record revealed and reviled him as a fraud not only in the political sense, but as the epitome of what should be unacceptable in a profession and culture that has all ways lived within the darker side of a moral gray area.
Sworn testimony from DesJarlais, his ex-wife, and others released by the Chatanooga Times Free Press on November 15th chronicles a litany of illegal misuse of power, medical ethics, and manipulation that is so extensive that it makes one wonder how DesJarlais has avoided prison time since 2001.
Yet, amidst the affairs, use of medical funds, and violations of doctor-patient ethics, the most disturbing aspect remains DesJarlais's blatant use of abortions as a tool to save his own medical, personal, and political reputation. The issue here is not pro-life or pro-choice, but DesJarlais's willingness to prey on the current political beliefs and fears of voters, while already having admitted, under oath, to have repeatedly committed an act that he had vehemently denounced other for doing.
Political scandals often tug at certain issues of morality. Human torture, major financial kickbacks from lobbyists, and political affairs have all tugged at America’s moral stomach in ways that have made people think about heading for the toilet. More often then not, however, people have accepted these incidents as realities of life that are necessary to move forward.
But the scope and severity of Scott DesJarlais's scandal covers a width and severity that people should be able to agree on, not just both sides of the aisle. Democrats have fairly criticized the state’s Republican Party for not releasing the testimony before the 2012 elections. Republicans defended the accusations by claiming it would jeopardize DesJarlais’s medical license. (You think?) Yet the Democrats would have tried to protect one of their own to the same extent in order to retain a seat in the house.
In hindsight, it is easy to wonder how DesJarlais, a small town doctor who had never run for office, was elected to office in a historicallyDemocratic district by an overwhelming majority in 2010. The easiest answer, and subsequently the most terrifying, is the Tea Party movement. Even while the president dominated the Electoral College and won the popular vote in what was supposed to be a neck-and-neck election, Americans still showed they prefer their congressional representatives a bloody shade of Republican red. Given its funding, single-issue voters, and the uncertainty of the broader Republican Party, the Tea Party doesn't appear to be going anywhere, at least on the congressional level.
Congressman Scott DesJarlais will continue to be investigated. He will likely face a trial, or multiple trials for numerous charges, and may even be removed from office. But there is a greater issue at stake here. In a district with 174,233 voters, DesJarlais won almost 60% of the vote with over 100,000 voters in 2012. In a district where Democrats targeted a scandal-plagued Tea Party candidate, DesJarlais still came away with a resounding victory.
The election, the scandal, and its ramifications say plenty about Desjarlais, but they might say even more about the Tea Party. The scenario proves that it doesn’t matter who is in office for the Tea Party, nor does the movement place value in their candidate’s private beliefs or personal conduct. All that matters is getting elected by politically assuaging the fears of panicked voters who can only see one issue down a dark and narrow tunnel.
If the information had been released before the election, or if the elections were held today would Scott DesJarlais have won back his congressional seat? The question is harder to answer than it may appear. It is true that much of his base would criticize him for his past, and rightfully so. He would also likely lose independent voters who had been on the fence. Yet, the Tea Party’s willingness to use its candidates to draw focus away from any kind of legislative progress, and instead trumpet its utter opposition to a the dangers of a Democratic, or even moderate Republican who could threaten the only thing in the that matters to them, is a concept that has refused to die.
If Scott DesJarlais was the difference between Republicans controlling the House, or giving control to the Democrats, wouldn’t the Tea Party and event the entirety of the Republican Party back him anyway? More importantly would voters be willing to accept that narrative even if it meant putting a liar, a cheat, and a hypocrite of the party’s message in office to supposedly represent their needs? The fact that we as a people have to ask these questions should be sickening enough for everyone.