Perhaps the most telling moment in the past few days' controversy over South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford's absence and subsequent revelation that he'd been visiting his mistress in Argentina came during the period when his staff was putting out the story that Sanford was hiking the Appalachian Trail, and the Democratic National Committee rushed out a press release blaring that the Trail had received stimulus money, and therefore Sanford - as an ardent opponent of the stimulus bill - was a hypocrite for walking on ground that had been touched by Obama's pork-barrel bill. Once the reach of the federal fisc had touched that ground, no possible alternative is permissible but to agree with the political dictates of the hand that holds those purse strings.
The incident speaks volumes about the peril the nation faces to its way of life, and the depth of the trust Sanford breached by engaging in a reckless affair at a time when he was one of the small handful of people in the country well-positioned to do something to stop it.
We live in a time when the governing majority in Washington is pressing to weaken or coopt every institution that could stand, as De Toqueville would put it, as an independent bulwark against the power and pervasive influence of the federal government - private businesses bought off with no-exit bailouts and subsidies or coerced with regulatory threats, the states bribed with no-exit stimulus money and compelled to accept it, private charities subsidized or supplanted, universities, newspapers, schools, churches, the family - everyone ensnared in the influence of Washington and expected to dance its tune, and none permitted to stand against the one, singular set of value judgments imposed by the cultural and economic Left. The push to insert the federal government far more deeply into health insurance and health care is now the critical inflection point. Health care involves a person's most basic, private, intimate, familial and life-and-death values and relationships. "Health" can be and is used, by the Left, as an excuse to regulate everything else - the argument being that if the taxpayer's involved in your medical care, Uncle Sam has a financial interest in whether you smoke, wear a seatbelt, own a gun, eat fast food, watch too much television, etc., etc., etc.
We sometimes hear the much more modest ambitions of the Right - prohibiting abortion, maintaining existing legal definitions of marriage - described as if they were some sort of massive conspiracy to meddle in other people's private lives. Libertarians complain, in the same-sex marriage debate, that really we'd be better off if the government was out of the marriage business entirely. But of course, such things are inconceivable as long as the federal government keeps expanding - with ever more programs directed at 'families,' government is incapable of staying neutral on how to define a family, as it would in a nation with more liberty and less government. On issue after issue, we get cultural flashpoints precisely because government has already moved in and set up shop, and is now just quibbling over the price.
For all of that, there is still, out there in the public, a fair amount of sentiment in support for the traditional American way of life - having liberty and taking personal responsibility for your own decisions, the bad ones as well as the good ones. But what that public sentiment is missing is a leader. A lot of the burden of speaking out on the issue has fallen on older right-wing war horses like Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich, but while Rush and Newt are formidable spokesmen, neither holds elective office or is likely to again. And the battered Beltway GOP has lost many of its leaders and most of its authority on size-of-government issues. That's one reason why so many hopes have devolved on the next generation, the 50-and-under Republicans, many of them in state government or in the House: Sanford, Sarah Palin, Bobby Jindal, Eric Cantor, Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, Pat Toomey.
Among that younger generation, Sanford stood out as the most experienced, and has compiled a strong record not only of principle but of public integrity, from leaving Washington after three terms in Congress to battling his own party back home over spending. It's too early to pick a horse for 2012, but a lot of us had already put valuable time and energy into studying up on Sanford and promoting his views: I'd interviewed Sanford and written up a long profile of him when I could have been doing something else with my time, just as I'd pored over video clips of him last summer. Erick Erickson stuck his neck out during Sanford's absence, passing on his staff's explanation about being on the Appalachian Trail. Even to those of us already jaded about politicians, Sanford seemed, however quirky, to be a true believer in the good fight and a solid if unexciting guy to possibly line up behind.
And Sanford betrayed us, just as he betrayed his family; he lied to us and wasted our time. But that's not what is so frustrating - it's that at a time and place when the nation desperately needs champions of our traditional liberties, he was one of only a few people who could really have made a difference. To read his emails to his mistress, you can sense that Sanford was in the hold of a deep infatuation, and any of us who have been lovesick teenagers can understand that, but the man's not a teenager; he's a married father with responsibilities not just to his family and his State but to the nation as a whole. He's not easily replaced, and the American people will be poorer for his abandonment.
The Left, of course, sensing the removal of an obstacle to ever-greater social control, is ecstatic at Sanford's downfall. It's amusing to watch, given that these are the same folks who told us a decade ago that an executive's affairs - even felonies committed to cover them up - are nobody's business and only the concern of people with some sort of mental problem (I believe it was Sid Blumenthal who argued that anyone remotely disturbed by Bill Clinton's affairs must be a closeted homosexual), but then they always just assume nobody remembers what they said back then, having no principles but the pursuit of power. The convenient excuse is that it's only hypocrisy when Republicans act immorally, on the theory that Democrats don't believe in right and wrong anyway, an argument whose counter-factual nature and fundamental depravity I have dealt with at length before and won't rehash here. Republicans, while we may disagree among ourselves about precisely the impact of Sanford's affair, aren't switching sides on this the way the Democrats do, and have all but unanimously written him off for the office Clinton once held; nobody is planning a pep rally on the Statehouse lawn to celebrate in his honor. (I had more thoughts on the significance of marital infidelity to executive and legislative roles in this post on John McCain last fall).
The fight to preserve the American people's independence from Washington control will continue. But for now, the people will have to fight on without one of their best leaders. Shame on him for that.