Every time I see Eliot Spitzer, I think of Mark Sanford. In 2008, then-New York Gov. Spitzer was disgraced after he was caught cheating on his wife with a prostitute. In 2009, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford was disgraced after he was caught cheating on his wife with his Argentine mistress. Today, Spitzer is the co-host of CNN's hour-long news program Parker Spitzer, and his public image is inexplicably rehabilitated, while Sanford remains a punch line and persona non grata among most political elites.
Spitzer isn't the only politician to get 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. As for Bill Clinton, his reputation was barely tainted by his tawdry shenanigans, at least among Democrats.
On the Republican side, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani was called a "notorious philanderer" by his third wife, yet he was still taken seriously as an early presidential frontrunner in 2008. In 2010, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is taken seriously as a possible 2012 presidential candidate, despite the fact that he cheated 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 from every other politician who successfully endured a sex scandal? It's the fact that he was so markedly different from most politicians to begin with.
If Democrats always despised Sanford for his strict fiscal conservatism, many Republican politicians weren't too far behind in their contempt. In the early days of his administration, Sanford made it known that the business-as-usual mentality governing fiscal affairs was about to come to a halt. He even went as far as to carry two piglets into the Statehouse in a protest of pork-barrel spending. At that time, Republican politicians in the Palmetto State were not very different from their national counterparts. They spoke in conservative soundbites, but they 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 Republicans in the General Assembly 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 the state, conservatives cheered and politicians from both parties cringed. The political establishment argued that Sanford's stance was impractical and even immoral, since it would likely deny aid and services to state workers and the unemployed. Sanford argued these politicians had been immoral by creating a budget crisis so dire that federal intervention was the only possible solution. Sanford believed that accepting federal dollars would create more debt and prolong the problem of runaway spending. Earlier this month, The Post and Courier reported, "The spending cliff that Gov. Mark Sanford feverishly warned about is here."
When it comes to Sanford's infidelity, he is held to a different standard 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 the damage to his reputation and help resuscitate his career, post-scandal. Politics is like the mafia: 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 headaches. One can only imagine the secret glee of many big government politicians from both parties when they first heard that Sanford had cheated on his wife. Unlike Spitzer, the Kennedys, Clinton, Giuliani, Gingrich, and McCain, the same political establishment that gladly covered for these figures will not give Sanford any breaks, precisely because he never gave them any. These elites simply do not want Sanford to move forward in politics. They want him to go away, and they always have. The adultery scandal was a godsend for an establishment eager to bury Sanford for good.
And yet if Sanford built a political career without the help of the political establishment, the same just might be true of a future career. Sanford was Tea Party before Tea Party was cool, and his brand of fiscal conservatism is more popular today than ever.
What the future holds for the outgoing governor remains to be seen. But one thing is certain: Mark Sanford's enemies will not forget his past and they will hold onto it in order to keep him from having a political future.
Catch Southern Avenger commentaries every Tuesday and Friday at 7:50 a.m. on the "Morning Buzz with Richard Todd" on 1250 AM WTMA.