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Mr. Sanford's Wild Ride | The Nation

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Mr. Sanford's Wild Ride

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KAREN CALDICOTT

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Paul Wachter
Paul Wachter, co-founder of the news aggregator againstdumb.com, writes about sports for The New York Times Magazine,...

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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.

Among his former colleagues, Sanford's Congressional days are remembered for his public displays of frugality: he trimmed office staff, helped stop the daily delivery of ice to Congressional offices, slept on a futon in his office and showered at the House gym. "It was one gimmick to the next, and I never thought there was much substance to him," said House majority whip James Clyburn of South Carolina.

Until the recent stimulus kerfuffle, Sanford's years as governor had been most notable for public theatrics, as well. In May 2004, a day after the Republican-led House overrode 105 of Sanford's 106 budget vetoes, the governor carried two piglets into the Statehouse chambers to protest "pork-barrel spending." (That the pigs proceeded to defecate on the governor struck some miffed lawmakers as poetic justice.) The following year, he brought a horse and buggy to the Statehouse, saying it symbolized the state's "outdated" Constitution and ways of governance. At first, it looked like the governor's recent "disappearance" was yet another in his long resume of zany but harmless capers.

"Sanford's ideal for a perfect South Carolina would find the state with very limited government, no income taxes, limited roles for public education and little governmental involvement with job creation," wrote S.C. Statehouse Report publisher Andy Brack in 2005. In less dire economic times the governor's fiscal austerity resonated with many South Carolinians. But as the economy tanked, his style of governance, which can best be described as obstructionist, has proved costly.

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