Bloomberg View columnists Margaret Carlson and Ramesh Ponnuru met online today to discuss Mark Sanford's victory in yesterday's congressional race in South Carolina. What follows is a lightly edited transcript.
Margaret: Mark Sanford was supposed to be the only Republican capable of losing an election in South Carolina's overwhelmingly Republican 1st District. Just a few short months ago, distraught Republicans were saying that even you or I, Ramesh, could have defeated Sanford. So they left the hapless candidate, the philanderer famous for his non-journey along the Appalachian Trail, to run a lonely race. He traveled the district speaking of redemption and deficits with no support from the national party and little staff or money.
He was covered as if he were a sideshow at the circus. How clumsy was it when he couldn’t get a cardboard cutout of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to stand up? What was his reaction when a voter asked if Sanford’s children were suffering because of his affair with an Argentine woman? (He stuck a cell phone in her face and told her to ask one of his sons if he was suffering.) How weird was it when he led a TV crew in search of the hordes of women said to hate him?
Except he won. Sure, it's a pretty lopsided district, which went for Mitt Romney by 18 percentage points last year. But I bet few of his comrades in disgrace, such as Eliot Spitzer or Anthony Weiner in New York, could win in a similarly lopsided district. Not only did Sanford endure the embarrassment, he got lots of free media for it. His affair turned the insider into an outsider. And I haven’t even gotten to the miscalculations of the Democrat.
Ramesh: It's true, Margaret, that Sanford benefited from a heavily Republican district. But the Democrat, Elizabeth Colbert Busch, did more than miscalculate. She proved to be a lousy candidate. She tried to solve the problem of running in a conservative district by being evasive -- literally so, when it came to reporters trying to get face time with her. She trashed Obamacare but wouldn't commit to voting for its repeal. She wouldn't even commit either way on whether she would vote for Pelosi for speaker. Meanwhile, Sanford kept plugging away, working three times as hard as she did. The final result was overdetermined.
Margaret: She was a terrible candidate. She allowed Sanford, a former member of Congress and governor of the state, to portray himself as the challenger to the well-funded sister of Stephen Colbert. And she ran a cosseted, incumbent’s campaign of sterile ads. He seemed to welcome contact -- the crazier the better. She fled when she saw a real person.
What won the race for Sanford is what all of us thought would lose it for him. There is something endearingly human about Sanford. With a wife at home and four boys to raise, he made a huge mistake to follow his heart. But people do crazy, reckless things in the throes of love. We can’t stone all of them.
Ramesh: His victory was bad news for political spouses, I think. As you know, I'm a bit tougher on Sanford than you are. (Although I would stop short of stoning him.) Whether to begin the affair -- to start flirting, to let things proceed to the point where he was doing crazy, reckless things -- was entirely in his control. And leaving the state and not telling anyone about his whereabouts seems to me like a pretty profound dereliction of duty. Luckily he has not been elected to a position of executive responsibility. Nobody is going to care if a congressman runs off somewhere for a few days.
I agree, though, that one thing that separates Sanford from the usual adulterous politician is that he seems to have fallen genuinely in love, and that probably helped him with voters. He seems like a very weird guy, but not a phony.
Margaret: Ramesh, thanks for the break on the stoning. I’ve got some pebbles to throw at him. If I were Jenny Sanford, I might want to kill the jerk. But I’m not and I don’t. Voters may be too worried about their jobs to throw much of anything at their flawed candidates.
What a terrible way Sanford has to celebrate his victory. He has to appear in court to answer charges that he trespassed in his wife’s house, an act that seemed to end whatever hopes he had for a comeback. His said he slipped into his former house to watch the Super Bowl with one of his sons when his former wife was away, violating his custody agreement. But rather than lose the race for him, I think it won him more votes than it lost. Parents of both genders have seen the sorrow of fathers who no longer get to have ordinary time with their children. That’s how jerks such as Sanford pay for their sins -- not at the ballot box.
Ramesh: At least if they're lucky enough to be running in safe districts! I wouldn't recommend this course of action to someone running for a swing seat. I'm not even sure I'd recommend it to a politician running in a less socially conservative area. One might think that New Yorkers, who pride themselves on their sophistication about the way of the world, would be more forgiving of politicians' sexual indiscretions than South Carolinians would be. But Sanford was able to talk about his redemption -- a more powerful theme in a Bible-soaked region of the country than it may be in New York. So even though Weiner's infidelity was a lesser offense than Sanford's, he may end up paying a higher political price for it.