Some people shatter the record for speed in their sport. Others redefine their industries. Mark Sanford is rewriting the cultural rule book on infidelity.
Sanford didn’t just beat 15 other opponents to win the District 1 Congressional primary last week. He also may have changed the rules on infidelity in politics — and maybe in a couple of other arenas as well — in ways that could reverberate for a generation to come if he wins the May 7 general election.
According to the old playbook, after having an affair and getting caught, you appeared in public with your wife beside you, admitted wrongdoing, apologized, and then stuck it out in an unhappy marriage and hoped to hold on to your office. Not Sanford.
In a move that crisis management firms will study for years to come, when he finally appeared in public with a woman at his side after the affair, it wasn’t his wife, but his mistress. The two of them grinned from ear to ear at his primary victory press conference Tuesday night, looking very much like what Sanford has always said they are — two people in love.
It was a gutsy, almost scandalous move that somehow worked.
As unthinkable as it was beforehand, Sanford has managed to get this far despite his tactful determination not to apologize for the affair itself. He has made it fairly obvious that while he does regret the pain his infidelity caused, he doesn’t regret the relationship and that he deeply loves the woman he left his wife for. Instead, on the campaign trail Sanford has repeatedly talked about how he has asked for forgiveness from his maker for his moral failings.
That part of the campaign has been gut-wrenching and at times almost too painful to watch. But it has also been what politics very rarely is — real and extraordinarily human. Whether Sanford meant for them to or not, on some level a significant number of Republican voters ate it up. It has made many of those who had admired him before almost militantly protective of him now. In fact, you can hear it in their voices when they call my radio show on WTMA 1250 AM.
To them, this isn’t a quick, dirty act for the thrill of it in the Oval Office. This isn’t what Bill Clinton did, they fume. This is something Charlestonians have never quite seen before in politics. They might not approve of it, but enough of them understood it.
Sanford’s primary win was also politically ground-breaking on a national scale in that it could rewrite the moral and electoral ground rules for the GOP. It wasn’t too many years ago that, by Republican Party standards, having an affair meant you had to resign from office. Your political career was over. Until the Sanford victory on Tuesday, actually running again, much less getting re-elected, was unthinkable.
Sanford’s win came with a price. It left some Christian voters reeling. Religious conservatives here, and perhaps across the nation, are now wondering what, if any, place the morality and values that are a cornerstone of their politics has in the modern Republican Party. They are wondering what place they have in a party that turned down Curtis Bostic, a perfectly good candidate they worked hard to elect, a candidate who was both a conservative Christian and conservative, in favor of Sanford.
During the primary, the sign outside a church on Ladson Road read “Send a Christian to Congress.” The congregation wasn’t referring to Sanford. When Republican voters voted to send him anyway, it wasn’t just a rejection of Bostic. To some Christians it was seen, in many ways, as a crushing rejection by their party of their moral standards.
To some fiscal conservatives, re-electing Sanford, who they revere for his budget-battling ways, meant having to overlook his moral failings, which still very much matter to most of them. But the way they see it, the moral battles in Washington have now largely been lost. They are now battling to preserve the individual freedoms they still have left. And they are trying to keep liberal politicians from bankrupting the country.
Whatever the case, if Sanford can pull off a general election win on May 7, he will have inadvertently ushered in a cultural change that could reverberate beyond politics. And despite his moral failings, he’ll be a damn good congressman, too.