What Sanford's Affair Means for Republicans

by Benjamin Domenech on 3:22 pm June 24, 2009

South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford today admitted to having an extended affair with an Argentinian woman, and announced his resignation from the Chairmanship of the Republican Governor’s Association, effectively ending his political prospects for higher office.

When the initial news story of Gov. Sanford’s mysterious absence began to trickle into the national press, I called a longtime political hand and friend in South Carolina, from my childhood years in Charleston, and asked about what he thought of the whole thing.

“[Sanford's] kind of an odd guy,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he was off hiking alone, he’s done this sort of thing since he was younger, back before anyone was paying attention. But it could be something else. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was something else. Like I said: good guy, but odd guy.”

An “odd guy” is apparently not even the half of it. What would possess a governor with such good prospects, and such a sterling resume, to throw it all away on a tacky mid-life crisis jaunt to Buenos Aires? For the social conservatives, the immorality of it is abhorrent. For others, it’s not even the immorality — it’s the gaucheness of it. In the old days, the crusty politicos intone, the politicians knew how to keep this stuff clean.

Considered one of the leading candidates for 2012′s Republican Presidential nomination, Sanford is just the latest in a long string of conservative Republicans to admit unfaithfulness to his spouse. Marital infidelity squelched the slim possibilities of a John Ensign 2012 run just a week ago — but before that there was Senator David Vitter and Larry Craig, and before that Bob Livingston and Bill Owens (who never admitted an affair, but who divorced his wife of 28 years amidst a long litany of rumors), and before that — well, the list is a long one. And while reports indicate that Gov. Sanford may have headed to Argentina to end the affair (it had lasted over a year, and his wife had known of it for several months), he is now on that list of derailments as well.

Today in Washington, multiple social conservatives — tired of raising money and investing volunteer hours for candidates who engage in such rampant marital sin — are talking about the concept of a “Fidelity Pledge,” along the lines of the long-running “Tax Pledge” taken by Republican candidates. While it’s a demonstration that the social right is tiring of this hypocrisy, it also begs the question: shouldn’t that “forsaking all others” vow be enough?

Of course, both parties engage in this sort of thing — 2004 Democrat Vice Presidential nominee John Edwards’ adultery with Rielle Hunter produced a child. Barney Frank had a prostitute working out of his apartment. Democrat San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom canoodled his former deputy chief of staff, made all the more uncomfortable by the fact she was married to his campaign manager. There was Eliot Spitzer’s Valentine’s Day gift to himself of a young New Jersey call girl, leading to his resignation – only to be replaced by David Paterson, who had his own infidelities. But the king still has to be Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who went from speaking to the 2004 Democratic Convention to the jail cell following an affair with his chief of staff, numerous corruption charges, and an attempted coverup of the targeted murder of a stripper his wife found him cavorting with (always an uncomfortable evening in the mansion after that). And this, too, is but the tip of the iceberg of sexual scandals on the Democratic side.

Yet it’s not as if any of these folks (other than perhaps Edwards, who put his supposed devotion to his ailing wife at the center of his public image) are considered hypocrites. Why exactly is that? Well, that’s an interesting question. Let’s just leave it at that.

There can be, of course, political life after affairs. Newt Gingrich is on his third wife — by all accounts, an excellent woman — who he carried on with during his prior marriage and during the Lewinsky trial, and is looking more and more like a possible candidate in 2012 for a Republican Party which, lacking the chance to win the presidency, may at least be interested in winning policy arguments.

Looking forward, the two potential 2012 candidates likeliest to benefit from Sanford’s implosion are Mitt Romney, who will presumably get a nice slice of Sanford’s fiscally conservative supporters, a happily married Mormon with a family of perfect hair and tans — and Texas Governor Rick Perry, a dark horse candidate at the moment who could emerge from a divisive Republican primary in Texas as one of the last men standing three years hence. Sanford’s absence, as a candidate who could’ve potentially united the warring factions of the party, makes the entire 2012 roster all the weaker.

Keep your zippers up, fellas. The GOP is running out of feet to shoot.

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