Published: Sunday, June 19, 2011, 7:26 AM
Sex scandals and budget deficits might not seem like similar issues but in an important sense they are. In both cases, male arrogance and ego come into play. And in both cases, that leads to risky behavior -- emailing salacious images to women or jeopardizing the credit rating of the country.
Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, got it right when she told the New York Times: "Women run for office to do something, and men run for office to be somebody." Dee Dee Myers, former White House press secretary in the Clinton administration, added: "There are certain men that the more visible they get, the more bulletproof they feel. You just don't see women doing that; they don't get reckless when they're empowered."
Start with sex. After Rep. Anthony Weiner was revealed as a serial sender of phallic photos, folks tried really hard to compile a list of licentious women. The sinners included Helen Chenoweth, the late congresswoman from Idaho who carried on a long affair with a married man, and Katherine Bryson, a state legislator from Utah who got caught with her lover on a surveillance camera. To fill out the meager roster, historians had to dredge up Catherine the Great, who took many young lovers but died in 1796.
There are many reasons for this disparity starting with time. Men apparently have it, and women don't. One of the great unanswered questions is how Weiner squeezed in so many online flirtations. His colleague from New York, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (the mother of two small boys), once said of cheating: "While I'm at home changing diapers, I just couldn't conceive of it."
Then there's the "reckless" factor mentioned by Myers. Men might feel "bulletproof" but women know life doesn't work that way. They know there's always a price to be paid. Rep. Candice Miller, a Michigan Republican, told the Times: "Every time one of these sex scandals goes, we just look at each other, like, 'What is it with these guys? Don't they think they're going to get caught?'"
Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist, said the same self-confidence that enables a man to run for office could also fuel his sense of entitlement: "It's the Icarus phenomenon. You think you have wings and you can fly up to the sun and down to the water. Sometimes you burn and then you sink."
But sex scandals don't ruin the country's credit rating. The current struggle to raise the debt ceiling is far more serious, but males in both parties are exhibiting the same chest-thumping (or chest-baring) behavior that sank Weiner. Let's be clear, women can be highly partisan warriors (see Sarah Palin and Nancy Pelosi), but as Walsh noted, if their goal is to "do something," rather than "be somebody," women are more likely to submerge their egos, listen to their rivals, and seek pragmatic compromises.
In today's Senate, female members represent one of the few islands of civility. They meet regularly for private dinners, co-sponsor legislation, and have even written a book together. In a recent interview with Christiane Amanpour of ABC News, Christine Lagarde, the French finance minister, argued that women "inject less libido, less testosterone" into the decision-making process. "We don't necessarily project our egos into cutting a deal," she explained.
On ABC's "This Week," author Claire Shipman agreed that an overdose of male hormones makes harmony much more difficult. "There's something about a group of men and testosterone, you know, making risky decisions, that's very real," she said.
Torie Clarke, who learned something about male behavior during her years as the Pentagon's chief spokesperson, added: "You can see guys within a company competing with one another all the time, often to see who can get to the top of the food chain, versus women who more often will say, 'I'm going to get in there, and let's get this done.'"
All men are not jerks, and all women are not gems. But females still hold less than 17 percent of all seats in Congress. And if you don't think Washington would be better off with more women in positions of power, answer this question honestly. Can you imagine a female legislator taking a picture of her private parts and sending it to a youthful male admirer? We rest our case.
Steve and Cokie's new book, "Our Haggadah" (HarperCollins), was published this spring. Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.