AS THE ECONOMIST went to press, consumer-protection offices in Virginia had not yet announced plans to affix a sticker to every canister of shoe polish sold in the state reading “FOR FOOTWEAR, NOT FACES”. That the stuff should be used to brighten shoes rather than darken faces may seem obvious to most, but not to Ralph Northam and Mark Herring, respectively Virginia’s governor and attorney-general, both Democrats.
On February 1st, a website released Mr Northam’s page from his 1984 medical-school yearbook, on which a picture showed a man in blackface grinning next to a man in a Ku Klux Klan outfit. One of Mr Northam’s former classmates, angry at the governor’s clumsily worded defence of a bill loosening restrictions on abortion, reportedly alerted the website to the page.
Over the next two days, Mr Northam provided an object lesson in how not to respond to a political crisis. Shortly after the picture emerged, he apologised for “the decision I made to appear as I did” (he did not say whether he was in Klan robes or blackface). During a surreal press conference he then said that in fact he was not in the picture, though he admitted to once having “darkened my face as part of a Michael Jackson costume.” He appeared ready, after a reporter’s question, to start moonwalking, until his wife leaned over and whispered: “Inappropriate circumstances.”
Democrats from Nancy Pelosi to Mr Herring have urged him to resign. He has so far resisted, and is reportedly considering leaving the Democratic Party and serving out the rest of his term (Virginia governors cannot run for a second consecutive term) as an independent. If he steps down, he will be replaced by Justin Fairfax, the 39-year-old, African-American lieutenant-governor, also a Democrat.
But Mr Fairfax has problems of his own: Vanessa Tyson, a university professor, said he sexually assaulted her at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. Mr Fairfax admitted to knowing Ms Tyson, but said that she was “very much into a consensual encounter.” Ms Tyson said that he physically forced her to perform oral sex.
Should Messrs Northam and Fairfax both resign, Mr Herring is next in line. But on February 6th, Mr Herring admitted that he too attended a party in wigs and blackface, “dressed like rappers we listened to at the time, like Kurtis Blow.” Mr Herring apologised profusely, and left open the possibility of resignation, but for the moment he too remains in office.
If all three leave then Kirk Cox, the Republican House speaker of Virginia’s General Assembly, would become the state’s governor. Mr Cox holds the speakership because Republicans won a 51-49 majority in the lower House after the state’s board of elections drew a name out of a hat in a district where the Democratic and Republican candidates received exactly the same number of votes. Mr Cox, assuming he was never photographed in blackface, would then get to appoint a lieutenant-governor, and the Republican-controlled legislature would elect an attorney-general.
Republicans, who have not won a statewide race in Virginias since 2009, are salivating at the prospect of claiming all three top posts. But as long as they line up behind a president whose record on race or groping is not exactly woke, their condemnations of Messrs Northam, Fairfax and Herring may ring a little bit hollow.
Yet if the Democrats’ position is that doing something offensive while in university renders someone unfit to hold office, regardless of whether his attitudes and political views have since changed, they risk setting an impossible standard. Perhaps their current zeal mirrors the lack of it across the aisle: Democrats may feel that they must be less forgiving because Mr Trump has made the previously unsayable acceptable. Perhaps the three accused men have also taken a lesson from the president: that if they hunker down and withstand the outrage, the news cycle will eventually move on to fresher meat.