The Campaign Spot

Did Sanford’s Comeback Trigger the Weiner and Spitzer Bids?

If former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford’s comeback bid for the U.S. House had failed earlier this year, it’s possible that scandal-ridden former governor Eliot Spitzer and former congressman Anthony Weiner wouldn’t have launched their comeback bids.

“If he can do it, I can do it” is an optimist’s mantra, and it requires the public to gloss over any differences.

When Sanford’s disappearance from the state became public knowledge, he returned to the U.S. and, in front of the cameras, Sanford confessed his sins . . . and kept talking . . . and kept talking . . . and kept going until almost everyone in the state begged him to stop talking about it. A messy divorce followed; a state legislative ad hoc committee voted to censure but not impeach him. (Sanford may have been helped by the fact that quite a few political factions in South Carolina wanted the lieutenant governor, Andre Bauer, to have a leg up in the upcoming gubernatorial race.)

In some voters’ eyes, adultery is adultery, and the details don’t matter much. But Sanford’s scandal didn’t quite fit the standard template of political sex scandals. Rather than the usual chasing-the-secretary-around-the-desk, Sanford and Maria Belen Chapur had met in person just four times in eight years, and the two wrote effusive e-mails, calling each other “my love” and “sweetest”; Sanford later publicly referred to Chapur as his “soul mate.” The govenor and Jenny Sanford had separated, at her request, when he went on the infamous trip to Argentina.

After the Sanfords divorced, the governor and Chapur got engaged. In a country where roughly half of all marriages end in divorce and 19 percent of marriages that occurred in 2008 were the second marriage for at least one spouse, the sad ending to Mark and Jenny’s marriage is regrettable, but hardly uncommon.

Weiner, of course, did not confess when caught. He vehemently denied the reporting of Andrew Breitbart about the lewd images and claimed his Twitter account had been hacked; he and more than a few allies, like CNN’s Jeffrey Toobin, suggested that Breitbart was probably lying. The controversy triggered days of questions about how and why someone would hijack Weiner’s account to send out those photos, and increasingly implausible comments from the congressman, including his famously telling CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that he could not say whether or not the photo was of his own underwear-clad private parts. Weiner let his friends, like Kirsten Powers, go out and lie for him, contending the allegations couldn’t be true. He audaciously denied the charges with indignation, calling a reporter a “jackass” during a press conference.

A few days later, Weiner called a press conference in a hotel in New York City to admit that, indeed, that was him in the photo, and he had engaged in sexual chat with young women on Twitter. But before Weiner arrived, Breitbart stepped up to the microphones and “hijacked” the press conference, denouncing Weiner for lying and the media for uncritically repeating his lies.

Spitzer’s scandal was not mere impropriety; it was illegal. What’s more, Spitzer had, as attorney general, led the prosecution of two alleged prostitution rings and other companies he believed had ties to prostitution. Here’s the reasoning from Michael Garcia, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, on why he didn’t press charges:

ELIOT SPITZER has acknowledged to this Office that he was a client of, and made payments to, the Emperors Club VIP.

Our investigation has shown that on multiple occasions, Mr. SPITZER arranged for women to travel from one state to another state to engage in prostitution. After a thorough investigation, this Office has uncovered no evidence of misuse of public or campaign funds. In addition, we have determined that there is insufficient evidence to bring charges against Mr. SPITZER for any offense relating to the withdrawal of funds for, and his payments to, the Emperors Club VIP.

In light of the policy of the Department of Justice with respect to prostitution offenses and the longstanding practice of this Office, as well as Mr. SPITZER’s acceptance of responsibility for his conduct, we have concluded that the public interest would not be further advanced by filing criminal charges in this matter.

Resigning from the governor’s office appears to represent “Spitzer’s acceptance of responsibility for his conduct.” Spitzer believes he’s spent enough time in the penalty box of the private sector, hosting shows on CNN and Al Gore’s Current TV, and is ready to return to public life.

As the song goes, “It’s up to you, New York.”

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