“Put not your faith in princes,” the psalm says, and really, how many times do we need to hear that before believing it? I am personally sad about the demise of Mark Sanford’s political career — for now at least — because in the past seven months he has been the most stand-up, out-there opponent of the Obama adminstration’s massive expansion of government the GOP has. He has been intellectually confident, forceful, and consistent. His defense of free markets and small government has been Reaganesque in tone and conviction. Others who think what he thinks either can’t make the sophisticated version of the case as well as he has in, say, the Wall Street Journal; or they have been unwilling to take on a popular president. (Romney, who I believe is past his political sell-by date, is an exception.)
So, as far as I am concerned, this is a real loss for the GOP. But, while I have been a fan of the governor’s at a distance, I have never comprehended the “but I believed in him” school of wailing political romanticism. Never believe in a politician.
It is clear enough that Governor Sanford was, to say the least, ambivalent about a larger role for himself in national politics. No one gets to be president without really wanting it, and anyone who wants it enough exercises a little care about indulging his vices and weaknesses. (I will add here, just to keep the e-mails down, that yes, we all have vices and weaknesses, and it is a lifetime struggle to tame them, and most of them don’t really affect how most people do their jobs.) Whether his weakness was sexual, or emotional, or just the now-normal, even clichéd stuff that happens all too often to successful men in long-term marriages at middle age; or, perhaps, just an insignificant manifestation of the Y chromosome defect — doesn’t really matter to those of us who are not personally affected. Morality aside, if he wanted to be president, he would not have been having a highly traceable affair in a foreign country and leaving such a pathos-filled e-mail record. For that matter, Governor Sanford seems to have been conducting this affair even during the time he was a under consideration as John McCain’s running mate.
One can only be sad for the very-dignified wife and the quite-beautiful children whose lives have been assaulted by this personal betrayal. Or, anyway, that’s what I think. I have been fascinated to read large numbers of comments about how, when a man goes looking outside his marriage for love and sex, it’s because he isn’t getting it at home. Maybe. Sometimes. Maybe he just had the opportunity. Amazing what you can start thinking will save you at middle age.
I think it is a tragedy that all of these unpleasant dramas must be played out so very publicly. I no longer really understand why any wife would support her husband’s desire for a political career. Especially not a wife whose family fortune is needed to finance it. Lucky for the wounded Mrs. Sanford that she has the wherewithal to leave, should she so desire.
Could he make a comeback? Yeah, probably. If he wants to. Over time. To be sure, there was a very long time when I thought that sexual morality was on the list of attributes that mattered in a political leader. Integrity, example, personal discipline, vows — they all seemed crucial to me in a leader. (In a personal relationship, they still do, of course.) At the moment, I take the somewhat more nuanced and subjective view that it mostly matters when it steps over some kind of (inherently arbitrary) line, in which a major psychological flaw is revealed by dint of the nature of the infraction.
Senator Ensign didn’t cross that threshold. Spitzer, McGreevey, and Edwards all did. We learned about their characters from their sexual behavior. Mostly their practices just confirmed what we already knew to be the essential nature. Spitzer was an arrogant bully, Edwards a phony and a narcissist, Bill Clinton a sex addict. We have learned about Mark Sanford that he wasn’t entirely the hard-ass politician who fought budget growth in South Carolina so well. He has a mushy romantic side and a need to escape.
Whatever. If he cares to, he can recover. I bet he won’t choose to do so.(Just as he has yet to choose to return to his marriage, except under immediate duress.) Which will be a pity. Because he had all of the right ideas. And these days, I would take a flawed Christian, with a failed marriage, who believes in liberty, markets, and low taxes, over what we have, no matter how good a family man President Obama might be, any day.