Gov. Mark Sanford a week ago: an intelligent, handsome, well-spoken conservative who does not work in Washington, exactly the kind of politician who might have something interesting to add to a potential Republican revival.
Gov. Mark Sanford today: a humiliated man whose name prompts snickers among millions of Americans who know his name in no context except as a new synonym (as if one were needed) for political hypocrisy.
Not to mention another symbol of a party in crisis as it seeks to move past the Bush years and cultivate a new generation of leaders — many of whom keep taking themselves out of commission through everything from terrible speeches to presidential appointments to sex scandals.
One should be a bit cautious about invoking Sanford’s embarrassment as political metaphor. Weaknesses of the flesh, like those of the bottle and purse, have been known to affect Democrats and even some people who are not in politics.
But the sheer body count of recent months — culminating with Wednesday’s news conference in which the tearful father of four admitted he had, without telling anyone, skulked out of South Carolina to visit his Argentine mistress — is unmistakable.
In just the past two weeks, two prominent GOP officeholders have held news conferences to announce that they’ve cheated on their wives. In what may be a new standard for straying politicians, The State newspaper in Columbia released e-mails obtained in December from Sanford to an Argentine woman named Maria. “I could digress and say that you have the ability to give magnificent gentle kisses, or that I love your tan lines or that I love the curve of your hips,” reads one. “But hey, that would be going into sexual details.”
All told, Republicans now have two sitting governors, Sanford and Nevada’s Jim Gibbons, and two sitting senators, Louisiana’s David Vitter and Nevada’s John Ensign, tainted by the brush of adultery.
“Republican candidates have got a big problem with ‘the spark thing,’” lamented Republican consultant Mark McKinnon, alluding to Sanford’s memorable characterization of the moment his friendship turned romantic. “They can’t seem to put out the ancient fire that has burned so many before.”
Both Sanford and Ensign had been mulling over White House runs, and their indiscretions have led to some gallows humor among Republicans about just who, if anybody, they may field against President Barack Obama in 2012.
More seriously, the fall of Sanford and Ensign deprives a party desperately in need of new blood of two figures who had been considered up-and-comers.
“As a party, we must pass on the mantle of leadership from an unpopular generation of politicians, led by [Dick] Cheney and [Newt] Gingrich,” said longtime GOP strategist John Weaver. “This episode, more than the Ensign affair, makes that task harder.”
But it’s not just sins of the flesh that are keeping the party down. Not only have the unpopular Cheney and Gingrich emerged as two of the most visible GOP spokesmen this year, but some of the party’s other young guns have stumbled.
With Jon Huntsman’s appointment to serve as ambassador to China, three potential 2012 White House aspirants have fallen by the wayside less than six months into Obama’s first term.
Just as notably, a party seen as being dominated by older white males has seen two of its most prominent nonwhite guys do damage to their political standing.
The already-polarizing Gov. Sarah Palin has suffered a series of mishaps, seen her approval ratings in Alaska plummet and generally become as much tabloid personality as serious politician.
And Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, while not as significant as the others, is still trying to put a poor State of the Union response performance that triggered comparisons with Kenneth the Page behind him.
ut it’s Sanford’s bewildering tale of disappearances and romantic intrigue, as unexpected as it was unlikely, that has sent already-beleaguered Republicans into a new funk.
“It’s a blow to us — I’d be fooling myself if I didn’t think this was damaging,” said former South Carolina GOP Chairman Katon Dawson.
Dawson, one of the architects of South Carolina’s GOP resurgence this decade and the runner-up to become Republican National Committee chairman earlier this year, said, “Character and integrity matter to our party.
“It’s important to hold our leaders accountable, and Gov. Sanford has flunked that test.”
Democrats can barely suppress their glee.
“Sanford’s political suicide robs the GOP of an articulate, telegenic spokesman at a time when they can least afford it,” said Chris Cooper, a Democratic consultant and South Carolina native. “Like him or not ... he was an effective messenger for the economic-conservative wing of the GOP.”
The tangled tale, replete with multiple cover stories and perplexing travel schedules and e-mails full of painfully purple prose, became a bit clearer Wednesday at a dramatic news conference when Sanford admitted to the affair and resigned his position as chairman of the Republican Governors Association.
Later in the day, Sanford’s wife, Jenny, released a statement saying the couple had begun a trial separation two weeks ago.
“I have been unfaithful to my wife. I developed a relationship with what started out as a dear, dear friend from Argentina,” Mark Sanford said in a rambling and often emotional news conference at the state Capitol in Columbia.
“I’m a bottom-line kind of guy. I’m just gonna lay it out. It’s gonna hurt, and I’m going to let the chips fall where they may,” said Sanford, often touted as a potential 2012 presidential hopeful.
Sanford apologized to his family. “To Jenny, anybody who has observed her over the last 20 years of my life knows how closely she has stood by my side in campaign after campaign after campaign,” he said.
Asked if he and his wife had separated, Sanford responded, “I don’t know how you want to define that. She’s there; I’m here.”
“What I did was wrong, period,” he said. “I spent the last five days crying in Argentina.”
Jenny Sanford was much less vague, saying that after learning of her husband’s infidelity and first working “to reach reconciliation through forgiveness,” she had asked her husband to leave earlier this month.
“We reached a point where I felt it was important to look my sons in the eyes and maintain my dignity, self-respect and my basic sense of right and wrong,” she said in her statement. “I therefore asked my husband to leave two weeks ago.”
Jenny Sanford said the terms of the “short” trial separation called for the governor not to contact his family, so she was unaware of his whereabouts during the past week.
The governor said that his staff did not deserve blame for giving misleading statements about his whereabouts to the press — first that he was off writing and then that he was hiking the Appalachian Trail.
“I apologize to my staff,” Sanford said in a statement released after the 2 p.m. news conference. “I misled them about my whereabouts, and as a result the people of South Carolina believed something that wasn’t true.”
Soon after the news conference ended, the RGA announced that Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour — another potential 2012 candidate for the GOP — would be stepping in to fill Sanford’s previous role as chairman. If anyone in Republican politics had a good day Wednesday, it may have been Barbour, who just this week is beginning to get his toe wet in the 2012 wters.
“The news revealed today hurts all of us who have gotten to know Gov. Sanford over the years, and so it is with regret that the RGA accepted Gov. Sanford’s resignation as chairman,” Barbour said in a statement. “While this news is deeply disappointing, I also know it’s important to remain focused on the future, and Gov. Sanford’s resignation allows him and us to do just that.”