Sanford's affair: a distraction the GOP doesn't need

Sex scandal engulfing South Carolina's governor may keep Republicans from focusing on their real task: to define an alternative vision to Obama's.

Mary Ann Chastain/AP
South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford pauses to look at his notes as he admits to having an affair during a news conference Wednesday. He also said he is resigning as chairman of the Republican Governors Association.

Gov. Mark Sanford’s admission of an adulterous affair will, if nothing else, complicate his immediate future as top executive of the Republican-red Palmetto State.

But more critically, it will no doubt be a huge distraction from the real task before the Republican Party: to come up with a credible alternative vision to the one President Obama offers, to find a leader who can articulate it, and to shake off the shroud of hypocrisy that befalls the family-values party whenever one of its own admits to adultery.

“This just underlines again that Republican politicians should leave the preaching of moral values to preachers,” says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. “Until they move away from divisive social issues, this is going to happen to them again and again.”

While sex scandals involving Democrats Bill Clinton and John Edwards may have hurt their careers, the party itself largely withstood the fallout. The damage may run deeper for the GOP. Recent scandals involving Republicans such as former Sens. Larry Craig and David Vitter, former Rep. Mark Foley, Rep. John Ensign, and, now, Governor Sanford come at a time when the party is struggling to be relevant in Washington, perhaps by working with majority Democrats – against the druthers of its political base of social conservatives.

One thing after another for the GOP

“It’s easy to say, ‘There goes another one,’ ” says Bruce Gronbeck, a political scientist at the University of Iowa who studies political scandal. “It seems the party is split … now between the governing segment and populist state organizations, and it’s giving the party fits. Then you throw up one scandal after another, and they soon have no nails to bite at all.”

On the other hand, Dr. Gronbeck adds, Sanford's admission helps Republicans with their process of "character evaluation" of their party's field of possible candidates – a sort of winnowing out process ahead of next year's congressional elections, which they hope to fine tune by the 2012 presidential election. Sanford's libertarian-style leadership and his willingness to stand up to the Obama administration on economic issues have earned him kudos from many in the GOP establishment.

Sanford resigned immediately from his chairmanship at the Republican Governors Association, a perch from which he had been preparing for the possibility of a presidential run. The speed at which the RGA made the announcement spoke volumes about the national political impact of the governor’s admission, experts say. The Democratic Governors Association followed quickly with a press release, too, expressing sympathy for the governor.

A public admission

Sanford disappeared from sight and cellphone reach last week. His staff told reporters he was hiking the Appalachian Trail. In fact, Sanford jetted to Buenos Aires to meet a woman with whom he has been having an affair since last year, he admitted Wednesday.

Sanford publicly apologized to his wife and four sons. “I’ve been crying for five days in Argentina,” he said during an emotional press conference Wednesday, where he at times appeared to be holding back tears.

Buzz about whether the state legislature would try to impeach Sanford for “serious misconduct” under the state’s constitution immediately gave way to questions about whether he would or should resign. When asked, Sanford did not address that issue. His term ends in January 2011, and he cannot run again under term limits.

A career-killer

The fact that Sanford apparently misled his staff, who then repeated the misinformation to reporters, guarantees that the story will continue to dog not just the governor, but also the Republican Party, says Dr. Sabato.

“His White House hopes are dead, and he’ll never again be elected to statewide office in South Carolina,” Sabato says. “It’s over. His career is finished.”

Whether Sanford's strange trip and shocking admission will ultimately help Republicans address the political liability of espousing moral behavior while major figures in the party fail to adhere to such codes in their private lives is one lingering question for the party, Gronbeck says.

“This is affecting the party in all kinds of ways right now, and you don’t know how long it will take, how far you have to drop, before you’re willing to bounce back and get that coalition-building going again,” says Gronbeck.

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