“Aha!” cried liberals across the land, when the election returns from South Carolina came in, and the zombie political corpse of Mark Sanford had somehow managed to score a landslide victory over the vivacious Elizabeth Colbert Busch. “Now we’ve got you right where we want you, Republicans! Your hypocrisy on family values will be your undoing!”
The idea is to tear off Representative-Elect Sanford’s zombie arm – the one he prefers to wrap around the trim waistlines of Argentinian cuties – and beat the rest of his party senseless with it. The party of John Edwards, Bill Clinton, Ted Kennedy, John F. Kennedy, and Anthony Weiner will ask the public how they could possibly support a party that would tolerate adulterers in its ranks. When the public raises an eyebrow at these demands, Democrats will say you can’t accuse them of hypocrisy, because they’re not serious about all that “family values” stuff, no matter what they say in red-state campaign ads.
Looking at the difference between Mark Sanford and, say, William Jefferson Blythe Clinton, it would seem that whatever Mark Sanford’s flaws, he still has some understanding of the relationship between sex and marriage. His ex-wife Jenny certainly does. His marriage to her ended, fairly quickly and decisively, once it was discovered that his hiking expedition down the Appalachian Trail ended in Argentina. He is now engaged to his former mistress.
The Clintons, on the other hand, formed a turbocharged political team to protect Bill from his infidelity, striking a bargain that would make Hillary co-president and put her on the path to the White House in turn. They assembled a squad of crack character assassins to leap into action after every “bimbo eruption,” as Betsey Wright of the Clinton campaign famously described them. There was quite a bit of bimbo seismic activity to respond to; a particularly strong tremor eventually tore right through the carpet of the Oval Office.
The Clinton model divorced sex from marriage, preserving the latter at all costs for political viability. There have been times when both Clintons seemed genuinely content with this arrangement. We are not required to excuse a bit of Mark Sanford’s behavior to observe that sex remained inextricably linked with marriage in his case. At the very least, that’s a tip of the cap to a “family value” the Clintons seem to have little interest in.
On a practical level, not everyone who voted for Sanford in the special election might have been prepared to offer him absolution or redemption – some of them might be grinding their teeth a bit at hearing him talk that way. But electing a Democrat and giving Nancy Pelosi another footsoldier in the House certainly wasn’t going to do much for those family values. The Democrats have recalibrated their political strategy away from married couples, and made a stronger play for young and single people, particularly single women. This leaves an opening for Republicans to reaffirm the importance of marriage, if they’re not frightened away from it by media warnings about the dangers of appealing to “social conservatives.” Mark Sanford might not prove particularly helpful in that endeavor, but he doesn’t have to be much of an obstacle… and the Democrats might have cause to regret trying to make him one, because it will take them deep into a discussion they really don’t want to have.