The six best political comeback stories

April 11, 2013

Political comebacks are all the rage right now.

Once mired in the depths of scandal, Mark Sanford has a good shot of returning to elected office in South Carolina. And former congressman Anthony Weiner, who's career came crashing down dramatically after lewd photos surfaced on Twitter, is openly considering running for mayor of New York City.

They aren't the only two pols in recent years who've tried to put a scandal behind them -- and succeeded, at least to some extent. (In the case of Weiner it remains to be seen if voters will ever accept him again, but the fact that he is even talking about a comeback says something about where he is compared to where he was.) Here's a closer look (in alphabetical order) at some prominent politicians who've regained their political footing, and the ones we are waiting on. (Who did we miss? The comments section awaits.)


(Jeff Roberson/AP)

Bill Clinton: It's been more than a decade since Clinton admitted to a relationship with Monica Lewinsky, and it seems like a distant memory to many, judging by how popular he is right now. In 1998, Republicans went hard after Clinton, spearheading impeachment proceedings against the nation's 42nd president. But these days, circumstances are considerably rosier for him. In 2012, Clinton was the hottest ticket in the Democratic Party not named Barack Obama. He brought down the house with his Democratic National Convention speech, was a big draw on the campaign trail, and even drew Republican praise, which was a way of criticizing Obama. This much is clear: It's good to be Bill these days. A New York Times/CBS News poll taken last fall showed him to be more popular than at any time during his presidency.


(Carolyn Kaster/AP)

Newt Gingrich: Talk about a career of highs and lows. After Republicans swept into the House majority in the historic 1994 midterm elections, Gingrich ascended to House speaker, becoming the most visible face in his party. But four years later, he stepped down after an election in which the GOP lost seats. And in 1997, the House voted to sanction him and impose a penalty over an ethics issue. More than a decade later, he was back as a presidential candidate who stayed alive longer than many predicted. He picked up steam with conservatives who liked his outspoken, blunt manner of politicking. He's not ruling out another bid, but it's unlikely he'd find real traction in a future campaign. Still, his image today is far different form what it was when he vacated the speaker's office.


(Bruce Smith/AP)

Mark Sanford: Sanford's comeback is in progress after he won the Republican nomination earlier this month in South Carolina's 1st district special election. After disappearing from the state for nearly a week in 2009 before admitting to an extramarital affair, Sanford finished out his term as governor and edged off the radar after leaving office in early 2011. No one's talking about a White House bid any longer, but Sanford remains the frontrunner to capture his old congressional seat in next month's election. He's been up front about his fall from grace, insisting it's given him a sense of humility that would serve him well in Congress. A big question is whether independent and Republican women will buy it at the polls next month. If they don't, and opt to go with Elizabeth Colbert Busch (D), this will be a comeback stopped short.


(Stephen Chernin/AP)

Eliot Spitzer: Spitzer rose to power as a reform-minded New York governor with a reputation for being unafraid to take on Wall Street before it all came crashing down in 2008, when he resigned following a prostitution scandal. Since that time, he's edged his way back into the public's consciousness, first with a CNN show, then with a program on Current TV. He hosted a fundraiser last year for now Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D), so he clearly hasn't shrugged off politics just yet. It's not clear what the future holds for Spitzer, but given that he's tried to remain a public figure since leaving office, the smart money is one some type of political comeback attempt in the coming years.


(Alex Wong/Getty Images)

David Vitter: Time has been on the side of the Republican senator from Louisiana. After being ensnared in the high-profile case of the "D.C. Madam" in 2007, Vitter didn't have to run for reelection until 2010, affording him time to heal his public wounds. He won a second term that year, and in the Senate he's been working with his Democratic colleagues on environmental issues and financial regulation. And when Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) steps down after his second term, no discussion about the race to succeed him will be complete without mentioning Vitter. He proved the "time heals all wounds" mantra has something to it -- especially when you have a few years between a negative story on the next time you have to face voters.


(Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Anthony Weiner: Weiner was a rising Democratic star representing a New York City district when his career came crashing down in 2011. He admitted to sharing lewd photos with women online, after first blaming a hacker for breaking into his Twitter account. The attempt to blame others, the photos, and the sheer strangeness of the story was too much to overcome. Weiner resigned and has basically stayed below the radar since. He's now thinking seriously about getting back into politics (You don't put a poll in the field and open up to the New York Times Magazine if you aren't.) The fact that Weiner's wife Huma Abedin -- a well-liked former aide to Hillary Clinton -- stood by him is a plus for his chances. Call it a TBD comeback. Weiner's young enough that he might one day return to office. But even he concedes the odds are against him.

Sean Sullivan covers national politics for “The Fix.”
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Sean Sullivan | April 11, 2013