Republican Mark Sanford’s convincing victory over Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch in the South Carolina special election to fill a vacant House seat may mark a turning point in the politics of GOP sex scandals. Simply put, Sanford refused to pursue the traditional GOP path of settling into a new life of disgraced obscurity. He went for the comeback, and he pulled it off.
It would be a fool’s errand to inquire into whether one political party has the edge over the other in matters of sexual morality. But it does seem clear which has been the more moralistic party in such matters, and it’s not the Democrats. Republicans have been defending marriage and promoting abstinence for decades—often, as it happened, more in the breach than the observance. And for years, this has meant that the party disappears those who stray. A classic example is the tale of the downfall of Republican congressman Mark Souder. He resigned in 2010 in order to avoid an ethics committee investigation into his affair with a part-time female staffer, Tracy Meadows Jackson, with whom he had made a video promoting abstinence education.
With a little luck, you can make it to the point at which you have retired or have become a venerable Washington GOP institution in your own right before knowledge of your affair or your love child gets out. But the general corollary to GOP moralism on sex is that when you get caught practicing what you have previously been condemning, you beat it out of public life for good—or else you get booted out by the voters.
And the interesting corollary for Democrats had long been that you could often get away with being caught in flagrante delicto. A sex scandal did not, in the end, claim Bill Clinton. But as the Monica Lewinsky saga neared its conclusion with the GOP House vote to impeach Clinton, contemporaneous affairs did claim in succession the speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, and the man who was going to succeed him, Bob Livingston.
An illustrative case of the old dynamic came after a 1983 sex scandal involving members of Congress and teenaged congressional pages. The House voted to censure Gerry Studds, a Massachusetts Democrat, for his sexual relationship with a male page, and Phil Crane, an Illinois Republican, for his with a female page. Crane went on to lose his 1984 bid for reelection. Studds went on to win his, and five more terms after that.
Now, admittedly, there are lines once crossed where political affiliation doesn’t matter. Democrat Mel Reynolds resigned in 1995 after details emerged of his sexual relationship with a campaign volunteer who was then 16 years old. He was also convicted of statutory rape and related charges. But if, as in the case of Barney Frank, it was just a matter of fixing parking tickets for your live-in partner, the male escort who claimed he was running a call-boy ring from your Capitol Hill apartment, no big deal.
So Frank survived, but up in smoke once the news broke went the political careers of such Republicans as Sen. Bob Packwood of Oregon (serial sexual harassment), Sen. Larry Craig (lewd conduct in an airport men’s room), Rep. Mark Foley (sexually explicit emails to male pages), and many more.
And when Sanford, then governor of South Carolina, vanished for a week supposedly on a solo hike on the Appalachian trail but in fact secretly trysting in South America with his Argentine lover (now fiancée), there was ample reason to think his political career was ruined, too. Republicans urged him to resign and even threatened to impeach him, but he hung in and served out his term. Nothing especially novel in doing that—although Craig had said he would resign, he too decided to serve out his term, perhaps reflecting on his newfound unemployability.
What made Sanford exceptional, then, was his decision to get right back into the game with a bid for the House seat. Official Republicandom didn’t like it, of course, nor did many conservative pundits. But the key point is that Sanford didn’t see his disgrace as all that disgraceful, and he rightly figured enough voters would forgive him.
The change has been some time coming. Incumbent Republicans, like Democrat Studds, have from time to time been successful taking their sex-scandal apology to voters; the most recent case was that of Louisiana Senator David Vitter, whose name turned up in 2007 in the address book of Deborah Jeane Palfrey, aka the D.C. Madam.
What makes Sanford a true breakthrough, though, is the absence of the advantage of incumbency. This latest run for office really was a new chapter in his political career—in some sense, a step back, in that he represented the 1st Congressional District of South Carolina for six years before he ran for governor. But in context, it’s an amazing feat.
On the other side of the aisle, though, the party of Clinton seems be changing its standards, too. All of a sudden, sex-scandal Democrats are in trouble—and it seems the absence of hypocritical moral posturing isn’t much of an insurance policy against ruin. Ex-Reps. David Wu, Anthony Weiner, and Eric Massa all decided to resign in light of disclosure of their varying degrees of misconduct. New York Governor Eliot Spitzer resigned in 2008 after the revelation that he was a regular client of an escort agency. And then there was John Edwards, whose successful defense at trial began with his lawyers conceding that their client was a thoroughly reprehensible human being.
If Tiger Woods and Mark Sanford can come back, why not Anthony Weiner and Eliot Spitzer?
Tod Lindberg (@todlindberg) is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford.