Mark Sanford and the end of the GOP culture wars

Mark Sanford gives his victory speech after wining back his old congressional seat in South Carolina on Tuesday.
(Rainier Ehrhardt / Associated Press)

In April 1861, South Carolina fired the first shots of the Civil War. Almost exactly 152 years later, it may have fired the final shots of the Republican Party’s culture war.

South Carolinians on Tuesday elected former Gov. Mark Sanford to the House of Representatives, handing him a convincing victory over Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch. Now, admittedly, she wasn’t the strongest of candidates -- her main claim to fame, face it, is that she’s the sister of late-night TV satirist Stephen Colbert.

But Sanford, of course, comes with his own baggage: an adulterous affair while he was governor -- recall his “Appalachian Trail” vacation that was actually a cover story for a visit to his mistress, er, soulmate, in Argentina -- followed by an increasingly messy divorce.


And did this matter to the good folks in the heavily Republican district? It did not. Sanford’s margin of victory was even wider than most pundits had predicted.

Now, let me be clear: I’m not that bothered by adultery from a politician. Then again, I’m a Democrat. We’re the “Big (party) Tent Party.” Black, white, Latino, Asian, gay, straight, other -- we welcome everyone. A smart woman? Let me introduce you to Elizabeth Warren and Hillary Clinton. An attractive blond? Let me introduce you to Anthony Weiner and Bill Clinton.

But the Republican Party hasn’t been known for tolerance. Gay marriage? Oh no, it’s against nature and God and all that’s holy. Abortion? Murder. Contraception? Heaven forbid. Healthcare? Only for those who can afford it. Immigration? Deport ‘em. Welfare? It’s for losers, er, takers -- you know, the ones who voted for President Obama.

So how to explain Sanford’s win? Simple: It’s about power. That’s what politics are really about anyway, and that’s what his victory demonstrates. Those GOP voters didn’t care that he was a sinner; they cared that he wasn’t a Democrat. Sanford ran against the devil, all right: Nancy Pelosi -- he even used a cardboard cutout of her in a “debate” during the campaign.

Sanford himself, making the rounds of the talk shows Wednesday morning, tried to spin it this way:

“I think we have a tradition in the South, and in South Carolina, of forgiveness,” he told “CBS This Morning.” “People do make mistakes. They do handle situations wrong. They do wish they had handled different things differently. But that whole notion of forgiving another person and saying, ‘OK, let’s begin this process of building and moving forward,’ I think is part and parcel to this larger notion of human grace.”

Which is funny, really, that forgiveness thing, because as Daily Kos and other sites have pointed out, Sanford, while a member of the House, voted to impeach President Clinton and called on him to resign.

Face it: When the belt buckle of the Bible Belt goes for a guy with Sanford’s moral character, you know it’s not about family values anymore.

So c’mon, Republican Party, drop the pretense. You weren’t -- you aren’t -- fighting for goodness and morality. You’re fighting for power.

And on Tuesday, one of your guys won. Be happy with that, and let’s move on.


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