Mark Sanford and the Right

Our governor’s fidelity to conservatism is what troubles many GOP leaders

Commenting on the controversy over our governor’s infidelity, The American Spectator‘s Jim Antle asked a relevant question: “Who really gains from Sanford’s apparent implosion?”

According to Antle there are two groups: “First, the Republican establishment in South Carolina and beyond. Notice that Sanford’s enemies in the party were some of the first to jump on the story of his disappearance and some of the loudest voices calling for his resignation when he returned. Second, the kind of people who supported the foreign policy preferred by such noted family men as Rudy Giuliani and Newt Gingrich. Sanford, with his opposition to preemptive war and skepticism about ‘regime change,’ was the strongest non-neocon candidate thought to be taking a look at the Republican race.”

Speaking on Fox News the same day Sanford dropped his bombshell, former Bush adviser Karl Rove said: “With all due respect to Gov. Sanford, I’ve never thought he was a particularly strong candidate. If you looked just beneath the surface in South Carolina, for example, there were a lot of strong conservatives who were very upset with his performance in office … it’s a sign of the lack of popularity that he’s got in the state that the immediate response of a lot of political leaders in the state was he’s got to go, and he’s got to go right now.”

That one of Bush’s most prominent advisers would say that Sanford was unpopular amongst “strong conservatives” in South Carolina is a pretty good indication of what Rove considers “conservative” — big spending, big government GOP hacks, whether they be those who dominate this state’s legislature or wrecked the last Republican presidency. Sanford is indeed unpopular amongst such “conservatives” and for good reason — he isn’t one of them.

The glee so many S.C. Republicans seemed to have in trying to hasten Sanford’s downfall was mirrored, albeit in a more muted manner, by national GOP leaders. In addition to Rove’s comments, talk host Sean Hannity had fun on his radio program with a parody song called “Don’t Cry for Me South Carolina.”

There’s nothing wrong or even unusual about a talk radio host, who is in part an entertainer, getting a chuckle out of Sanford’s cheating. The question is would Hannity be so quick to make hay out of the well-publicized personal indiscretions of Republicans like his regular guests Newt Gingrich or Rudy Giuliani?

For all the 20/20 hindsight amongst conservatives who now regret not speaking out against Bush’s spending, many still refuse to consider the primary source of that debt, namely our war in Iraq. And every major name mentioned as possible Republican candidate for president in 2012 — Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal, Gingrich, and possibly Giuliani — all supported and continue to support a Bush-style, neoconservative foreign policy regardless of the exorbitant price tag that goes along with it.

Sanford is markedly different because he doesn’t even speak the same language as the neocons, or as he told The American Conservative in March “I don’t believe in preemptive war … For us to hold the moral high ground in the world, our default position must be defensive.”

During a conversation with Sanford’s press secretary Joel Sawyer, I mentioned that I didn’t believe Sanford would needlessly spend trillions on wars that didn’t make sense because his fiscal conservative principles wouldn’t allow it. Sawyer agreed.

But Gingrich would spend the money and continues to say so loudly. So would Giuliani, who campaigned primarily on a war theme. We know Rove would, because the Bush administration did. Hannity even continues to tout the $3 trillion Iraq war as Bush’s greatest achievement.

Being a conventional Republican means a number of things, but using South Carolina as an example, we can deduce that at the state level it means not actually taking limited government rhetoric seriously and at the national level it means pretending to be fiscally conservative while promoting an outrageously expensive, neoconservative foreign policy.

While his liberal detractors and the media were quick to ascribe Sanford’s personal mess to the much larger mess that is today’s Republican Party, conservatives like myself were upset for reasons far removed from the navel-gazing over whether Sanford’s mistake makes the GOP look bad for 2012. I think Republicans make Republicans look bad. Sanford looked great precisely because he wasn’t a conventional Republican. That so many GOP hacks noticed this and didn’t like it made Sanford even more appealing. And then he went and cheated on his wife.

Antle’s lament mirrors my own: “There may not be a strong, mainstream contender who will stand against big-government liberalism at home and belligerent neoconservatism abroad. And that’s how this private tragedy became a public one too.”

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