Every time I see Eliot Spitzer I think of Mark Sanford. In 2008, New York Governor Spitzer was disgraced after he was caught cheating on his wife with a prostitute. In 2009, South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford was disgraced after he was caught cheating on his wife with an Argentine mistress. Today, Spitzer is the co-host of CNN’s hour-long news program “Parker Spitzer,” his public image inexplicably, yet seemingly rehabilitated. Today, Sanford is a punch line for anyone looking to make a joke about politicians and infidelity and remains persona non grata among most political elites.
Spitzer isn’t the only politician to weather being caught with his pants down and emerge virtually unscathed. One gets the impression that the Kennedy clan’s well-known sexcapades are now almost an accepted part of the overall “Camelot” narrative. At least in Democrats’ eyes, Bill Clinton’s reputation and legacy seems barely tainted by his tawdry shenanigans. On the Republican side, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani was called a “notorious philanderer” by his third wife, yet taken seriously as an early presidential frontrunner in 2008. This year, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is being taken seriously as a possible 2012 presidential candidate, despite cheating on his wife with an intern. How about 2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain? He’s an admitted adulterer too.
So what makes Sanford so markedly different than every other politician who’s successfully endured a sex scandal? The fact that the governor was so markedly different to begin with.
If Democrats always despised Sanford for his strict fiscal conservatism, many Republican politicians weren’t too far behind in their contempt. From the early days of his administration, Sanford signaled that business-as-usual was about to come to a halt, even carrying into the SC Statehouse two baby piglets to represent pork-barrel spending.
At that time and today, Republican politicians in SC were much like their national counterparts-they spoke conservative yet spent liberally. Sanford’s primary mission from the beginning was to remind his party that if you were going to talk the talk, you must walk the walk. Needless to say, most Republican politicians spent the last eight years looking for any possible way to shut the Governor up-or at least cripple his enduring popularity with conservatives.
When in 2009, Sanford famously rejected $700 million in federal stimulus dollars designated for SC, conservatives cheered and politicians from both parties cringed. The political establishment argued that Sanford’s stance was impractical and even immoral, possibly denying aid and services to state workers and the unemployed. Sanford argued the fact that SC politicians were impractical and immoral by creating a budget crisis so dire that such federal intervention was the only possible salvation. Sanford said that accepting federal dollars would only create more debt and prolong the more obvious and glaring problem of continuous runaway spending.
Earlier this month, Charleston’s Post & Courier reported, “The spending cliff that Gov. Mark Sanford feverishly warned about is here. The outgoing Republican governor took his concerns about federal stimulus cash all the way to the White House and the state Supreme Court. Now, nearly two years since his unsuccessful attempts to block the influx of federal cash, the state has spent $3.7 billion and legislative budget writers must make historically deep cuts to state spending.”
The reason Sanford is held to a different standard concerning his infidelity is because the political establishment never liked him to begin with. Virtually every other philandering politician I’ve mentioned in this column is an establishment man who relied on the media and political insiders to minimize damage to his reputation and help resuscitate his career, post-scandal. Politics is like the mafia-club members know that deep down they’re all a bunch of rotten bastards, yet they are still a family of bastards, who recognize and protect their own.
Sanford went to Washington, D.C. as a congressman and then to Columbia as a governor, but he never became a part of the political establishment. In fact, he has spent his entire career fighting against it. Sanford’s conservative example always gave leaders more headache than heart, and one can only imagine the secret glee of so many big government politicians from both parties upon hearing that the governor had cheated on his wife. Unlike Spitzer, the Kennedy’s, Clinton, Giuliani, Gingrich, and McCain, the same political establishment that gladly ran cover for these figures will not be giving Sanford any such breaks, precisely because he never gave them any. These elites simply do not want Sanford to go forward in politics, they want him to go away, always have, and the adultery scandal was a godsend for an establishment eager to bury Sanford for good.
Yet if Sanford’s entire political career has occurred despite the political establishment, the same will be true of any future career. Tea Party before Tea Party was cool, Sanford’s fiscal conservative brand is more popular today than ever. What the future holds for the outgoing governor remains to be seen. How firmly Mark Sanford’s enemies will hold on to his past to prevent any such future, does not.