Today – at least according to the conventional wisdom – those prospects, and quite possibly their political careers, have been diminished.
The reason, of course, is sex. Sanford's surreal disclosure of an affair with a woman from Argentina and Ensign's admission of an affair with a staffer were the latest headline fodder for a nation that has been fed a steady diet of political sex scandals in the past few years.
Here's a far-from-incomplete list of some other recent offenders: Bill Clinton. Rudy Giuliani. Jim McGreevey. Mark Foley. Newt Gingrich. Gavin Newsom. David Vitter. Larry Craig. Eliot Spitzer. John Edwards.
(Photos: Politicians Who Have Cheated)
Some of these men (and you'll note they're all men) have survived their scandals. Clinton emerged bruised but not broken from his impeachment proceedings. Vitter looks likely to be reelected to the Senate despite being outed as a client of the D.C. Madam. Newsom, who as San Francisco mayor had an affair with a top aide, is gearing up for a run for California governor. Gingrich's 2007 admission of an extramarital affair in the 1990s was quickly all-but-forgotten.
And some did not. Spitzer resigned from the New York governorship in disgrace. Then-New Jersey governor McGreevey resigned as well, though he salvaged some respectability with his "gay American" speech. A scandal involving instant messages and male teenage pages ended Foley's career. Larry Craig managed to stick it out in the Senate after his arrest for lewd conduct in a men's airport restroom, but did not run for reelection.
A sex scandal, then, is not an automatic career ender. But it is also not something that can be simply shrugged off, as is the case in many countries in Europe and elsewhere. French President Nicolas Sarkozy's active personal life did not diminish his election prospects; Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is presently weathering a mini-storm over an alleged inappropriate relationship with a teenage girl, the sort of scandal that would have been almost impossible for an American politician to survive.
But what, exactly, is it that Americans really care about? Is it the sex? The unfaithfulness? The hypocrisy? Or something else?
Let's look at the two most recent examples for guidance. The emerging conventional wisdom seems to be that Ensign – who followed the traditional script of apologizing profusely and then staying silent – seems more likely than Sanford to move on from his scandal. While both men are Republicans with conservative social views, Ensign is more open to charge of hypocrisy; a Promise Keeper who labeled Craig a "disgrace" and railed against Clinton, he built his name in large part by espousing the very values that his actions contradicted. (Not that Sanford is exactly exempt from such charges, having voted to impeach Clinton.)
And yet Ensign's admission of an affair has elicited sympathy in the chummy Senate and little outrage nationwide. Though liberals delighted in noting his hypocrisy, it does not seem to have resonated with the electorate at large. (While Ensign's approval is down in Nevada, it still bests that of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.)
Sanford, by contrast, seems to be in far more trouble, in part because of the weirdness of his scandal, as Andy Barr noted on Washington Unplugged -- the mysterious disappearance, the Argentine mistress, the tearful press conference. Unlike Ensign's rote admission, the Sanford affair made the governor seem all-too-human. Sanford discussed his mistress not as a "mistake" but as a person, talked openly about his personal struggles, and acknowledged that he essentially fled his job in frustration.
Is it possible, then, that it's not the sex, not the hypocrisy, and not the unfaithfulness brings down a scandal-plagued politician, but instead this exposure of his warts-and-all humanity? The revelations about Foley and Craig painted a portrait, accurate or not, of sad, desperate men who couldn't come to terms with who they are. Spitzer tried to follow the traditional damage-control script but his heart, along with his wife's, didn't seem to be in it. Sanford offered a heartfelt accounting of his struggles – and one could sense the Washington establishment shifting uncomfortably in their seats in response.
Ensign's strategy of an apology followed by silence allows a politician to maintain his status as somewhat larger-than-life, someone whose exposure to the emotional tumult familiar to many Americans has been effectively contained. To deviate from that script – even if it's simply to tell the whole truth – might ultimately be more perilous for a politician than the actions that got them in trouble in the first place.
This is obviously something of an oversimplification: Every politician's scandal is different, and no one overarching theory can explain exactly how each plays out. That said, the question of why we care – and why some, but not others, emerge from scandal – is worth exploring. And so Hotsheet wants to know: What do you think? Let us know below.