Add the name Mark Sanford to the ever-expanding list of politicians done in by extramarital dalliances. On June 24 the South Carolina governor and potential 2012 Republican presidential candidate resurfaced after a weeklong disappearance–during which his staff and family denied knowledge of his whereabouts–and announced that he had flown to Argentina to rendezvous with a woman with whom he had been having an affair. At the press conference, a shaken Sanford apologized for his indiscretion, though he acknowledged that his wife, Jenny, had known about the affair and that they had sought counseling. “I’ve spent the last five days of my life crying in Argentina,” he said. “I am committed to trying to get my heart right.”
Sanford immediately resigned as chair of the Republican Governors Association, and a day later he pledged to reimburse the state for a government-funded trip he’d taken to Argentina in 2008. It remains unclear whether he will survive the mounting calls for his resignation, though it’s almost certain the exposed infidelity has torpedoed any chance he might have had of attaining the Republican presidential nomination.
But if now is the time to write Sanford’s political obituary, it would be a disservice to place so much emphasis on his affair. What brought Sanford to national prominence and prompted Republican National chair Michael Steele to anoint him as a rising star was the months-long, headline-grabbing campaign Sanford led to turn down portions of the Obama administration’s stimulus funds. His stance played well among the fiscal conservatives who rallied behind the “tea party” protests this past spring, but many South Carolinians questioned the judgment of a governor who was willing to turn away money (jobs, really) designated for a state that desperately needs it and that boasts the nation’s third-highest rate of unemployment. In order to establish his economic bona fides among conservatives, it seemed, Sanford was prepared to run his state’s economy into the ground.
The showdown ended June 4, when the South Carolina Supreme Court ordered Sanford to apply for the disputed$700 million earmarked for his state. As questions mounted about the governor’s absence, his staff initially said he was hiking the Appalachian Trail to recharge after the defeat. But if there is an irony to be found in Sanford’s rambling public apology, it’s not the standard tale of comeuppance. Rather, it’s that he was finally asking South Carolinians for forgiveness–but for the wrong reasons.
Young, handsome and rich, Sanford swept into the House as part of the 1994 Republican revolution. A firm believer in the Contract With America–the party leadership’s paean to limited government–he pledged to serve no more than three terms. Yet even by his own reckoning, his time in Congress was undistinguished. The Trust Committed to Me, an autobiographical account of his six years in Congress, is a strange political memoir–a masochist’s chronicle of one legislative failure after another. In the fights over term limits (for), sugar subsidies (against), Congressional pay raises (against), Social Security reform (for) and the pork-laden highway bill (against), Sanford was always on the losing side–opposed not only by Democrats but often by his own party, which enjoyed a majority in both houses.