Conservatives are having a devil of a time trying to decide how they should feel about Mark Sanford, who offended the better angels of our nature back in 2009. Lest we forget, Sanford was the love guv of South Carolina, a rising GOP star, potential presidential candidate, and renowned fiscal conservative who suddenly vanished and spun a web of lies about his whereabouts - until it was revealed that he had ditched his wife for a woman in Argentina.
Sanford was ultimately compelled to quit the governorship. End of story, right? Wrong. This is America, where the fallen aspire to rise again. Four years after his purported walk on the Appalachian Trail, Sanford is walking the comeback trail, seeking to regain his old congressional seat in a South Carolina special election. In his first TV ad, he faced the camera and ate humble pie, seeking forgiveness for having been so fixated on his stimulus package: "I've experienced how none of us go through life without mistakes. But in their wake, we can learn a lot about grace, a God of second chances, and be better for it. In that light, I humbly step forward and ask for your help in changing Washington."
Sanford's line about "a God of second chances" is clearly aimed at Christian conservative voters, who, in theory, will offer their forgiveness and bless him in the March 19 Republican primary. Clearly, his handlers told him he needs to do an apology tour so the same southern Christians who judged him amoral can now be persuaded to gaze upon him with sympathy as one of God's flawed mortals. And maybe then they will cast ballots to wash away his sins.
All of which prompts, yet again, our ongoing debate about whether, or under what circumstances, we should punish, or excuse, the sexual misbehavior of public servants.
Conservatives are wrestling with those conundrums as we speak. Erick Erickson, who runs redstate.com and opines on Fox News, is gung-ho for a Sanford comeback - simply because the political exigencies of the moment require it. On his website, he writes that conservatives "do a terrible job with forgiveness and rehabilitation. Mark Sanford walked out of the governor's mansion and out of public life for awhile. He comes back (at a time when) conservatives in Congress are fighting on all fronts, outnumbered, depressed, and needing every man capable of manning the ramparts...I am willing to forgive him. And I'm willing to be graceful. We need him."
But Jennifer Rubin, the Washington Post's in-house conservative calls Sanford "disgraced and disgraceful," and takes an apparent swipe at Erickson: "It is a measure of his odd social conservatives have become that they would...rise to the defense of a home-wrecker and abuser of public funds. Conservatives who should know better engage in sloppy or dishonest thinking by asserting that personal forgiveness is indistinguishable from entrusting with public office someone with poor character and a proven track record of recklessness."
Arguably, what matters most in a scandal is not the misbehavior that sparks it, but the deceptions and cover-ups that often feed it. Sanford's biggest problem, potentially, is that he sullied his reputation for fiscal conservatism by conducting his affair with taxpayer money. (Plane tickets to Argentina don't come cheap.) Worse yet, he was incommunicado - and not merely with his wife. His own lieutenant governor had no idea where he was. Meanwhile, South Carolinians were told that he was off "writing something and wanted some space," and then told he was off hiking alone on the Appalachian Trail.
So how should we assess this guy? Turns out he's engaged to marry his Argentine flame, so does the fact that his affair was substantive make him less of a miscreant than Eliot "Client Number Nine" Spitzer, or David Vitter (fan of New Orleans hookers), or Larry "Wide Stance" Craig, or John Edwards (who had a lust child with his videographer), or John Ensign (who tysted with a senior aide's wife), or Newt Gingrich (who harrumphed about Clinton and Monica while he was married to wife number two and trysting with future wife number three)? Or should Sanford be judged more harshly - by South Carolina voters - because he used taxpayer money and thus breached his own fiscal principles?
Somewhere in New York City, Anthony Weiner is surely querying the God of second chances: "So can I run for mayor, or what?"
Dick Polman is the national political columnist at NewsWorks/WHYY in Philadelphia.