Southern Discomfort: Sanford's Stunning Fall

Who will step up to lead to GOP? Will he or she stay clean?

By Robert A. George
|  Thursday, Jun 25, 2009  |  Updated 7:25 AM EDT
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South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford speaks during a press conference at the State Capitol in Columbia, South Carolina. One-time GOP presidential hopeful Sanford admitted to having an extramarital affair with woman in Argentina.

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Has a rising star ever flamed out so quickly? 

It was just a few months ago, that many Republicans were looking to pin their fortunes to South Carolina's Gov. Mark Sanford.  The fact that he was defiantly rejecting the federal stimulus money pegged him exactly as the bold, defiant individual that a beleaguered and dispirited party needed to counter the Obama phenomenon. 

Yet, in barely a week, Sanford's future has seemingly evaporated.  It began earlier this week with a bizarre, "Where's Gov. Waldo?" storyline that had everyone trying to figure out exactly where the governor had gone for the weekend -- and then culminating today in a stunning news conference where the governor admitted to having a long affair with a woman in Argentina

Cue up the jokes: "Apparently, Sanford wasn't against all stimulus!" 

Or: "South Carolinians are most upset not that Sanford strayed, but where: Apparently "mistress" is one more job the state is now outsourcing to South America! Damn that NAFTA!" 

While in many ways it couldn't be considered a surprise (what is, these days?), as Sanford's press conference unfolded, it still came as a bit of a shock.  Not quite up there with Eliot Spitzer-involved-with-prostitution-ring shock, but still something that came nearly out of the blue.  That said, as such "I have sinned" announcements go, this could be considered one of the "better" ones.  The New York Times called it a "rambling" performance, which it was.  However, that fact humanized Sanford. This was no slick statement clearly written by committee.  On the contrary, he sounded like a truly remorseful man -- as opposed to a "politician."  He apologized to his wife, family as well as advisers and the public.

But, especially notable, Sanford stood there alone.  Unlike, the Eliot Spitzer debacle, Jenny Sanford wasn't there by his side, enduring the humiliation of a husband admitting his infidelity in public.   Who's idea that was is unclear. However, Mrs. Sanford's own released statement made one thing quite clear: She had kicked him out of the house two weeks ago, in what she referred to as a "trial separation." 

Whether Sanford pays a larger price than merely stepping down as chairman of the Republican Governors Association remains to be seen.  He may have attracted a certain sympathy factor based on the press conference.  However, the release of e-mails between the governor and "Maria from Argentina" -- and whether state resources were used for his affair could cause him serious political complications for some time.  And, don't forget, many South Carolina Republicans couldn't stand their governor before this. It's not like he has a lot of political goodwill upon which he can fall back.  

As much as this is a personal tragedy for the governor, his wife and their four sons, the national Republican Party has to wonder if it's snakebit.  Over the last two weeks, it would be fair to ask, what Republican politicians are NOT cheating on their wives (well, except for Sarah Palin)?  Sanford's announcement came one day after Nevada Sen. John Ensign apologized to his GOP colleagues for the affair that he admitted to last week.  Sanford followed Ensign also in resigning his GOP leadership position (Ensign was head of the Senate Republican Study Committee, the fourth-highest ranking member).  

It's always difficult for a party out of power to compete with the megaphone of the White House.  However, during a two-week period when Barack Obama is beginning to show some political bruises, sex scandals involving possible up-and-coming party leaders are getting in the way of Republicans producing a clear-cut opposition message.

Pretty soon the party might start requiring chastity belts be worn by any other candidates considering throwing their hats in the ring.  

Stay tuned. 

New York writer Robert A. George blogs at Ragged Thots. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. 

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