by J Scott Christianson, Columbia Daily Tribune Columnist

John Edwards’ public confession of an adulterous affair in 2006 – an affair that he apparently disclosed to his wife shortly thereafter – has been front-page material since the story broke late last week. We already know much more than we need to, thanks to hundreds of articles and reports, many of which are accompanied by intersecting timelines of Edwards’ affair, his presidential campaign and Elizabeth Edwards’ cancer diagnosis. Given this revelation, many former Edwards supporters are expressing their disappointment with the former presidential candidate.

“I’m disappointed and angry,” said Edwards’ former campaign manager David Bonior.

I supported Edwards during the Democratic primary. Do I regret supporting him in the primary? No, because I wasn’t supporting him because of his sexual fidelity. I supported him because of his economic plan and policies to help working Americans who are – if it is not too callous to use a sexual metaphor here – getting screwed by the forces of globalism and unfair trade practices.

Basing your vote on a candidate’s sex life is a dicey proposition in any election. Not only because it’s hard to have knowledge about such things, but more important because it doesn’t seem to be a good indicator of a person’s performance as a public official. Many people voted for Bush in 2000 because of his pledge to “restore honor and dignity to the White House” after Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky. So far, the Bush administration has been a grand success in this regard. Not even one hint of sexual indiscretion. Of course, the war in Iraq has lasted longer than World War II, we have the largest trade-deficit of all time, a budget surplus that was turned into the largest budget deficit of all time, a devalued currency, high unemployment, a housing and financial market meltdown and subsequent bailout, stagnant wages and record gas prices. You might lose your house, but at least you can be comforted in knowing that the prez is not fooling around with the interns.

While John McCain’s camp has remained silent on the Edwards affair – no doubt due to McCain’s own extramarital affair that led him to divorce his first wife rather than any magnanimity on the behalf of his campaign strategists – the news media are already testing to see how far they can go in linking Edwards’ scandal to the presidential race. David Gregory floated the following on MSNBC: “Tonight, more on Edwards and the fallout from his admission today about a sexual affair: Is this another skeleton in the Democratic closet that Barack Obama must struggle to overcome?” The possibility of adding sex to their already shallow coverage of the presidential horse race is just too exciting for Gregory and company to resist.

Reporters might not know how to cover energy policy, trade deficits or labor issues, but they certainly know how to cover a sex scandal. The flawed politico falling from grace, the contrite apology, the interview with the shocked wife to whom they ask such probing questions such as “How does knowing that your husband cheated with another woman (or man) make you feel?” This is the type of coverage you’d expect to see from Entertainment Tonight, not CBS.

Should voters decide whether to vote for McCain based on his personal affairs? No, they should decide not to support McCain because he represents more of the same for an economy that is clearly headed in the wrong direction. Likewise, voters shouldn’t support Barack Obama because of his marital fidelity. Instead, they should support Obama because he is the only candidate willing to challenge the status quo and lead us into an energy-independent future.

Does that sound like partisan politics? Well, perhaps, but it is not politics based on sex. My opinion of the candidates in this race will not change if one is found to have had an affair or if one is given a medal for marital fidelity. I, frankly, don’t want to know about a candidate’s sex life. As long as they are not breaking the law, whatever he or she does and whoever they do it with is their own business. The only time I want to know about a politician’s sex life is when it involves committing a crime, such as when Elliot Spitzer was caught hiring prostitutes.

By and large, making political hay out of a politician’s sex life has turned into a zero sum game for the Democratic and Republican parties. For every John Edwards there is a Rudy Giuliani, for every Larry Craig there is an Elliot Spitzer, and for every Bill Clinton there is a Newt Gingrich. Personal failings don’t seem to follow any political lines, and spinning infidelity for political advantage can quickly boomerang on a campaign.

We’ll never return to a time in which office holders and candidates had a private life that was separate from their public life. But I wish we could at least restrain our curiosity a little bit out of respect for the families involved.

As Elizabeth Edwards pleaded, “I ask that the public, who expressed concern about the harm John’s conduct has done to us, think also about the real harm that the present voyeurism does and give me and my family the privacy we need at this time.”