Sanford and the Culture

by Jonah Goldberg

Let me say upfront: I would rather we lived in a society where adultery had a higher social cost. That’s not to say people shouldn’t be forgiving or that there should be no such thing as second chances. But ideally, I’d like it if things were less loosey-goosey. Cheat on your wife, and maybe you don’t get to run for public office anymore. Send junk-tweets to random young women who aren’t your wife? Well there goes your dream of becoming mayor. Exploit an intern whose name you can barely remember while you’re the president of the United States, maybe your moral ranking should be downgraded to junk and you should quietly skulk off the public stage. Or, if that’s too much to ask, maybe the interval between scandal and rehabilitation could last a little longer than the maturation time of a fruit fly. No politician is so indispensable that we just can’t do without him (or her), never mind for a little while. 

But, here’s a newsflash: We don’t live in that country anymore. And any hope that we might be able to was not on the ballot in South Carolina yesterday. What was on the ballot was a choice between a woman who tried to dodge the fact she was a liberal running to advance the liberal agenda of the Democratic party and a conservative whose marriage fell apart because he fell in love with somebody else. I’m not condoning Sanford’s behavior — at all — but in the parade of horribles we’ve seen from politicians over the last 20 years, Sanford’s behavior is almost quaint. He fell in love with an age-appropriate woman. His formidable wife didn’t run to the stage to gaze admiringly and forgivingly at her disgraced husband to lessen the political damage. She kicked him to the curb and moved on with her life. Every marriage is different and we can’t peer inside any but our own, but I admired Jenny Sanford’s response.

Of course, one could argue that Huma, Hillary, and Silda were more “pro-marriage” in that they stayed by their husbands. And that just gets us back to how the culture has changed. It’s a fascinating thing. Speaking very broadly as there are exceptions all over the place, it seems like liberal political couples work harder to save their marriage after a sex scandal. Again, that’s just an impression. I haven’t tabulated all the cases. But it certainly seems like conservative voters like it more when wives refuse to tolerate their cheating husbands. Does that make conservatives less pro-marriage? Or does it mean that liberal political couples care about politics above all else? Or do they place less stock in the value of fidelity (it’s just sex, who cares?). It seems to me there are a lot of ways to dissect that. For now, suffice it to say the times have changed. 

And it’s worth noting that what has changed the most isn’t the supply of moral politicians, but the demand for them. Ambitious, selfish, amoral men have always been attracted to politics. At least in terms of his sex life, John F. Kennedy was a disgusting man who, among other things, pimped out an intern. Other presidents, Republican and Democrat, cheated on their wives, too. Such behavior is not new. But that was all kept from the public eye — by the press, by the establishment, etc. – in part because it was understood that if the public found out, the politician’s career would be over. Times have changed and the public doesn’t demand — or demand sufficiently — either the myth or the reality of morality anymore.

I think it’s fair to say that conservatives still care more than liberals about maintaining the old standards. And that creates a real dilemma. In an era of moral lassitude, how much do you insist on moral propriety in politics? Since sin and temptation are bipartisan phenomena, should conservatives be at a constant disadvantage? I don’t think there are easy answers there, or at least I can’t think of what they might be. Asking Republicans to vote for Colbert Busch in order to punish Mark Sanford strikes me as a hard sell. Why support the party you disagree with politically just to punish a man you agree with politically? Colbert Busch — whose political hero, of course, was John F. Kennedy – wouldn’t even answer directly whether she would vote for Nancy Pelosi as speaker. On matters of political integrity, it seems to me, Sanford was hardly the clear worse choice. 

But one thing I really resent is the tendency of liberals to demand that conservatives stick to standards that liberals reject entirely. If you have no brief against the Clintons, the Weiners, the Spitzers, or the Kennedys please don’t pretend you’re offended by the Sanfords. Indeed, when Democratic politicians get caught in scandals, the response from liberals is invariably, Why can’t you conservatives lighten up? Who are you to judge? Etc. It is only when conservatives are caught in such messes, that liberals walk over to the conservative side, pick up our standards, and beat us up with them. Any talk of lightening up or forgiveness is immediately denounced. 

It’s absolutely true that conservatives need to wrestle with the question of what we should expect from our politicians. But I’m not sure liberals have anything worth listening to on the subject. 

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