By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 24, 2009 4:08 PM
For Mark Sanford, the summer adventure to Argentina -- no, he was not on the Appalachian Trail as his aides incorrectly told reporters -- is now a major personal embarrassment, a story of infidelity and confession that has become all too familiar from political leaders.
But it is more than personal. For a Republican Party down on its luck, Sanford's mysterious trip and subsequent apology to everyone he could think of draws more unwelcome publicity to a party that needs but can't seem to get any good news.
The enterprising State newspaper in Columbia, S.C., cracked the case of Sanford's whereabouts by staking out the Atlanta airport, where one of the paper's reporters found the absent governor upon his return to the United States. After days of misinformation, the real story of his whereabouts is out.
"I wanted to do something exotic," he told the State newspaper Wednesday morning upon his return from Argentina. When the full story came out, he was not so flippant. "I've let a lot of people down," he told a packed press conference in Columbia in the afternoon.
Put aside what Sanford's wife and family knew. That is a between husband and wife. Whatever his wife or friends knew, it was a serious mistake in judgment for the leader of the state to simply drop out of sight for nearly a week.
It is also a major problem that he suggested to his staff that he planned to hike the Appalachian Trail while on his unreported absence, rather than telling them the truth about his whereabouts. And it was a serious oversight on his -- and his staff's -- part not to inform other relevant state officials that he was away. Even worse, no one had accurate information about the governor's absence when questions arose.
Sanford is a bright and independent-minded politician, which is one reason he has been touted by some Republicans as a possible presidential candidate in 2012 -- or at least has been until this week. Those dreams are likely over.
Sanford had endeared himself to conservatives by being one of a handful of Republican governors to object to Obama's stimulus and resist accepting all of the money. But he has not been a consensus builder and, say those who know, has left his party in turmoil in South Carolina with the way he has governed.
Sanford has a penchant for speaking candidly and openly about problems facing his state and the country. Upon his arrival Wednesday morning, he expressed surprise that so much has been made of his absence, and that may be an honest expression of his personal views. But as the governor of a state, he certainly knew better than to ask why this became a story. The blogs and comics were having a field day even before he admitted to the affair.
Perhaps he never really harbored serious thoughts of running for president, although there are some Republicans who say he was looking seriously at a 2012 bid. But given his personal situation, he should have known the odds against it were huge.
Presidential campaigns test more than a politician's knowledge of issues or familiarity with the world or political acuity. They reveal character and personality and, perhaps above all, judgment and dependability. Even without the affair, Sanford's governing style and penchant for going it alone would have made it hard to succeed through the rigors of a long presidential campaign without voters wondering whether he is reliable enough and trustworthy enough to lead their party or the country.
For Republicans, the long winter and spring continues. The embarrassments keep coming, as one after another of the GOP bright prospects has stumbled. Sanford's troubles come a week after another nascent 2012 prospect, Nevada Sen. John Ensign, confessed to an extramarital affair with a staffer who was married to another Ensign staffer.
Others mentioned as possible 2012 candidates have had other difficulties. Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, still one of the most charismatic politicians in her party, has raised questions among GOP officials about her reliability and political sensibilities. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, one of the brightest young minds in the party, took on water with his performance in delivering the Republican response to Obama's joint session speech to Congress last winter.
Some prospective younger leaders of the party have simply stepped aside. Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman chose to accept Obama's offer to become U.S. ambassador to China rather than help guide his party to a brighter future -- although he has plenty of time after that assignment to do so, should he choose.
Republicans have been trying to develop a more effective response to Obama and the Democrats, but polls show they have made little progress since the election. The latest Post-ABC News survey found Republicans lower in favorability than at any point since the early 1990s.
Every step forward has been matched by an embarrassment that has slowed the Republican recovery. Sanford's exotic getaway is the latest, a personal problem that he must still explain to the voters of his state, and another setback for the beleaguered GOP.