Mark Sanford and the politics of forgiveness

February 19, 2013

Mark Sanford is sorry. He wants your forgiveness and, as importantly, he wants your vote in the South Carolina 1st district special election next month.

That's the message in a new TV ad for Sanford, the man whose high-profile infidelity destroyed his political career and turned "hiking the Appalachian Trail" into a nationally known euphemism for philandering. Here's the spot:

And, here's the important part of the ad:

"I've experienced how none of us go through life without mistakes," Sanford says. "But in their wake we can learn a lot about grace, a God of second chances and be the better for it. In that light, I humbly step forward and ask for your help in changing Washington."

It's a good ad -- but then again Sanford was always a gifted communicator on television. (It's why after spending three terms in the House he was elected governor and was talked about as a potential 2012 presidential candidate before his affair came to light.) The more important question is whether it will work -- specifically, whether the people of South Carolina, or at least the 1st district, are willing to forgive and forget?

The first thing to know is that Sanford felt the need to apologize and frame his candidacy in the special election around the lessons he learned from his humbling four years ago.  Acknowledging his mistakes -- although, it's worth noting, he doesn't detail what those mistakes are/were -- suggests that Sanford's polling indicates that he needs to address the past somehow. That means it matters to some segment of South Carolina primary voters.

Hogan Gidley, a former executive director of the South Carolina Republican Party and a consultant for state Sen. Larry Grooms, another candidate in the race, is one of them. "Mark Sanford is trying to say, 'If you don't vote for me, then you don't forgive me," said Gidley. "As a Christian, I find that offensive. As a South Carolinian, I find that ridiculous."

Walter Whetsell, an adviser to former state senator John Kuhn, said Sanford is trying to distract from his real misdeeds -- specifically, that he abdicated his official responsibilities while conducting his affair.

"If Mark Sanford succeeds in making this election a referendum on the forgiveness of personal peccadillos, he could win," Whetsell said. "And that's precisely his strategy since he does not want voters to focus on his other, more substantive misdeeds in office, like his broken term limits pledge, his being AWOL from duty and his record-setting ethics fines."

The question is whether Gidley's and Whetsell's views on Sanford are the exception or the rule. And much of that answer is tied up in the politics of religion. What Sanford is clearly hoping is that by admitting his flaws and directly referencing the idea of second chances, he will be able to appeal to the Christian nature of the electorate. But, at odds with that appeal is his infidelity, which caused this whole mess and left his wife and four boys in the lurch.

There's a long history of second chances in American politics -- Edwin Edwards, the former Louisiana governor, may be the most obvious -- but usually the apology tour precedes the return candidacy. In Sanford's case, it appears that they are one in the same. Of course, four years in the pace of modern American life -- what with the Twitters and such -- seems much longer that it once did. Sanford is banking on the fact that our famous/infamous short memories are getting shorter and shorter.

The test for Sanford -- and the limits of forgiveness -- may well not come in the crowded GOP primary but rather in the April 2 runoff. Sanford, thanks to his name identification and money, is expected to be the leading vote-getter on March 19. But, if no candidate gets above 50 percent (and no one is expected to) then the two frontrunners face one another in two weeks time.

A one-on-one race will function as something close to a straight referendum on Sanford, what he has done and what he says he will do.  It will also be a test of how much voters are willing to forgive -- and how long that process takes.  Eliot Spitzer and Anthony Weiner -- among others -- will be paying close attention.

Obama to speak on sequester: President Obama will speak at 10:45 a.m. today about the need to avoid the automatic cuts contained in the so-called "sequester."

According to the White House, Obama will be flanked by emergency responders who could lose their jobs if the cuts are enacted. Obama will also challenge Republicans to close tax loopholes -- something the GOP has been unwilling to do.

Republican have suggested that the sequester is a foregone conclusion. The deadline for avoiding the cuts is the end of the month.

Johanns to retire: Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) made a surprise announcement Monday that he will not seek reelection in 2014, despite being in just his first term in the Senate.

The former governor and agriculture secretary said he and his wife, who has served as a county commissioner and state senator, felt it was time to leave public life after three decades and many elections.

Johanns's exit is unlikely to put his seat at risk for Republicans, given how red the state is the fact that Gov. Dave Heineman seems a natural fit to run for his seat. Heineman is very popular and is also term-limited in 2014, making a Senate run a logical next step.

Another Republican considering a run is Rep. Jeff Fortenberry.

Fixbits:

David Cohen, a chief strategist to Democratic former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, says he is likely to support Republican Gov. Tom Corbett for reelection.

Former DNC chairman Howard Dean says Congress should let the sequester happen.

Vice President Biden is going to Connecticut to talk about gun measures.

President Obama played golf with Tiger Woods on Sunday, and White House reporters aren't happy that they were left in the dark about it.

Hillary Clinton has signed with a speaking agency.

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R), who is seen as a top contender for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination, meets with Mitt Romney's top finance guy.

Sen. Marco Rubio's (R-Fla.) super PAC has raised more than $100,000 off water bottles making light of his "sip slip." Meanwhile, SNL sends up the incident.

Sarah Palin will speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference.

Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.) is open to challenging Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) in 2014 and says he will decide by this summer. Rep. Erik Paulsen (R) is also weighing a bid.

Richard Mourdock says he might run for office again, despite his disastrous 2012 Senate bid.

Alex Sink, the 2010 Democratic nominee for governor of Florida, doesn't sound keen on running again.

Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.), who is no stranger to ethics allegations, faces some more.

New York City Councilman Domenic Recchia (D) says he will challenge Rep. Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.).

Mississippi finally ratifies the 147-year-old 13th Amendment (abolition of slavery), fixing an oversight after thinking it had ratified the amendment in 1995.

House Republicans' first advertising target of 2014: Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D-N.H.).

State Sen. Toi Hutchinson (D) has dropped out of the special election to replace Jesse Jackson Jr. and endorsed frontrunner Robin Kelly.

Dale "Thugs and Criminals" Peterson, whose 2010 campaign ad remains one of The Fix's all-time favorites, is arrested for shoplifting beer from a Wal Mart. Seriously.

Must-reads:

"Obama Seeking to Boost Study of Human Brain" -- John Markoff, New York Times

"Obama using new political freedom to tackle domestic agenda" -- Scott Wilson, Washington Post

"Congressional staffers often travel on tabs of foreign governments" -- T.W. Farnam, Washington Post

"The question of Clarence Thomas" -- Robert Barnes, Washington Post

"White House immigration plan offers path to residency" -- Alan Gomez, USA Today

"Cuomo Bucks Tide With Bill to Ease Limits on Abortion" -- Thomas Kaplan, New York Times

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Chris Cillizza · February 18, 2013