Gov. Mark Sanford's admission to an extramarital affair with a woman in Argentina has sparked a debate within the backchannels of the GOP over how strongly the party should emphasize morality and religion going forward.
For decades, the GOP has used issues like respect for the sanctity of marriage and the notion of family values as a key component of its political platform and a point of divergence between Republicans and Democrats. A series of sex scandals involving high-ranking officials, however, has drastically altered that equation. And now some strategists are questioning whether the party should rethink the way it emphasizes these matters.
"It creates a very interesting tension for Republicans because they understand that there is a very interesting constituency that they have to appeal to, particularly in places like South Carolina, by resorting to that kind of moral values rhetoric," said Mike Maslansky, CEO of Luntz Maslansky, a predominantly conservative communications firm. "I don't say rhetoric as a means of demeaning it. Talking in those terms is a way to appeal to the base. In an election season they find it is a significant advantage to talk in those terms. Maybe for the other three years out of their term they wish that they hadn't."
The GOP, to be certain, will never get to a point where it willfully cedes the moral high ground to Democrats. The social and religious conservatives who comprise a large and vocal portion of the base won't permit such a drift. Nor, for that matter, does it make political sense. The failings of Sanford and others, they argue, were isolated and personal events and not reflective of the party as a whole.
"It is a personal tragedy that he talked about some length," said Frank Donatelli, chairman of GOPAC, a conservative political action committee, and former political director for President Ronald Reagan. "But I don't know that it has implications beyond that."
That said, conservatives have hit a rough patch in the last few years on the family values front, with Sen. John Ensign, Sen. David Vitter, and former Sen. Larry Craig all setting the stage for Sanford's own marital misconduct controversy. And there is a growing belief among strategists that Republicans might -- at least for the time being -- be better served to stress the economic components of their platform rather the social or moral aspects.
"Look, of course, we are the conservative party and we are going to have a conservative message," said Donatelli. "But I do think by talking a little bit more about economic opportunity that we as a party want to offer both at the national and state level, that is what we can do I think to broaden our ranks."
Craig Shirley, a long-time Republican strategist who has been vocal in his criticism of the party, added: "The problem with the Republican Party today is not having principles; the problem is the betrayal of principles. Frankly, I think the whole issue of 'family values' is overstated as a problem in the GOP. The Republican Party has a lot of problems, no doubt, but for every John Ensign or Mark Sanford are ten so-called conservatives undermining the Jeffersonian message of individual rights, individual dignity."