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The Sanford Affair -- It Matters and It Doesn't

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There was a time in America when events like this did matter and, as a result, the day a Governor Sanford publicly revealed the affair would also have been the day he resigned from office. But things have changed, and it's my theory that Americans have become "tone-deaf" to moral wrongdoing as long as they get to follow the ongoing activity like a reality TV show and actually come to identify with the central character and even empathize with them -- and the success of all these reality shows is actually part of the problem.

Earlier this week, Manny Ramirez, the star LA Dodger outfielder who was suspended from baseball for fifty games played his first warm up games in a farm club system to work his way back to the Dodger team sometime next week. Manny received such a stiff penalty because his transgression was so obvious, so blatant, and also so stupid as it followed all the controversy surrounding Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez (who likely did not tell the truth even in his public confessions), and of course Mark McGuire.

Did the fans let Manny know how displeased they were with his transgressions and obvious disrespect to the great game of baseball -- NO, they cheered him like it was the second coming of Babe Ruth and the stadium sold out for the first time in its history and everyone had a grand time. And Alex Rodriguez likely has the chance to "play out" his shame and ultimately still get into the Baseball Hall of Fame based on the statistics he accumulates from now on -- in other words, we'll just wipe the slate clean of his past transgressions and start over a new. And here's the key point -- most Americans polled and particularly sports fans polled say they are "no longer surprised or shocked or outraged" by any of this and they want to move on. So as I said, we have all become "tone-deaf" to the transgressions themselves and instead tend to focus more on the drama inside the story and the undercurring themes and finding out who else might be involved in the scandal.

But the original perpetrator -- they get their own radio show or become a TV talk commentator or appear on a new reality TV show or keep playing baseball and go to the Hall of Fame or write their book to help restore any financial losses or embark on a lucrative nationwide speaking tour. But they don't have to resign from public office, or face anything more serious than public censure, or be banned from baseball unless they've already retired, or be dragged through the embarrassment of public ridicule and condemnation rather than be cheered as a revitalized conquering hero. And this evolution to an almost "tone-deaf" society when it comes to moral transgressions is perhaps one of the most significant cultural evolutions that have taken place in our society over the last twenty years.

And so Mark Sanford, at this point, does not have to resign as Governor of the State of South Carolina, but perhaps as a concession to all moral arbiters in the country, he did announce his resignation from a top leadership position within the Republican Party.

Generally, the only exception to the tone-deaf response is when there is a clear criminal violation or when the transgressions cross over into questionable financial activities such as using state or taxpayer funds to pay for some of these activities or if prostitution or solicitation is involved. Yet Senator Larry Craig's activities and Governor Eliot Spitzer's activities and Representative Mark Foley's activities all involved at least one of the above three levels of transgression, and Larry Craig did not resign and Eliot Spitzer, perhaps the public official with the most egregious transgressions as prostitution was involved, was invited as recently as just two months ago to appear on the Today show and give his take on the country's economic downturn and provide his analysis of President Obama's economic stimulus program -- a small step perhaps but certainly a clear signal that even he is "on his way back."

But much of the political analysis of the Sanford episode is focusing on what this means to his rising national political future in the Republican Party and what it means to the political position of the GOP itself.

First, let me state emphatically that there is one area where these types of transgressions do impact the individual involved and will exact a permanent price or retribution as a result -- and that one area is if the individual involved has or had hopes of running for national office. The fact is, when it comes to local, city or state level office including governors and U.S. senators, the tone deaf attitude of Americans will allow these individuals to continue in office, perhaps become more popular, and even win re-election. Note the success of Mayor Villaraigosa in Los Angeles or Mayor Gavin Newsom in San Francisco to not only weather the storm of the revelation of their extra-marital affairs but also go on to win reelection as Mayors of their respective cities after the affair scandal news broke. And Republican John Ensign in Nevada is not going to resign and very likely Governor Mark Sanford won't have to resign either.

But Mark Sanford was one of those up and coming rising stars in the Republican Party along with John Ensign who was being touted for the national ticket in 2012. And that talk is now over, because it is my assertion that even with a "tone-deaf" attitude, Americans have still not demonstrated any willingness to forgive, forget, and move on so much that they are willing to support a national ticket candidate for president or vice president who has been involved in these kinds of moral transgressions. And I will go further and say that no candidate or public official of either Party who has this kind of activity in their personal life could successfully run in either position on a national ticket.

Had John Edwards won the Democratic nomination and then had his affair revealed, he would have been forced to resign, and if he didn't, the Democratic ticket would have lost in a landslide in the upcoming election. It simply cannot happen at the national level while it happens all the time at the state and city level of elected public official politics.

And this may be the most controversial assertion of all, but I am absolutely convinced that using Bill Clinton as an example of the "forgive and forget" attitude of the American people is simply not applicable and just plain wrong. Yes, the American people rallied around the president and opposed the partisan impeachment effort of the Republicans, and yes, President Clinton actually increased his popularity polling after the impeachment events and even after he left office.

But I am quite convinced that the situation would have been quite different had the Lewinsky affair taken place during President Clinton's first term. Had that been the case, the president might have been forced to withdraw from running for reelection, and if he had not withdrawn, I am convinced that as much as he was popular after the scandal broke, and as much as the American people opposed the impeachment process, had the president been running for reelection or planning to when the scandal broke, he would not have been reelected president with this scandal out there. But Bill Clinton had the advantage of already having been reelected so he did not have to face the voters on that count -- and the impeachment avenue was one that the American people simply did not buy into. And Kudos to them for that wisdom.

But at the national level, the American people will simply not overlook these transgressions, and their otherwise comfortable tone-deaf attitude is set aside for a more rigid moral code. And so if Mark Sanford has aspirations to run for national office requiring the vote of the entire country (President or VP), then he is paying the price as that hope is over -- period. And that aspiration is over for John Edwards, for Senator John Ensign, and even for Newt Gingrich -- Gingrich would have a chance if most people continued to forget about his situation as they have done for the moment, but the problem is that there is no chance that Newt's opposition both in and out of his Party would let the voters continue to forget about his past extramarital activities, and once they were reminded forcefully and often enough (and that is the American way -- go negative), he too would then fall victim to my "ban on national office" rule.

But perhaps most significantly, even with this "ban on national office" rule in place, I don't think it matters that much about Mark Sanford or any of the others for that matter, as I am firmly convinced that the only real chance the Republicans have in 2012 against Barack Obama would be to run a national ticket of Mitt Romney as president with Sarah Palin as VP based on a scenario where the economy had not robustly recovered and there was a general feeling that the Obama administration had failed in much of its recovery and stimulus efforts.

Romney, unlike John McCain, would be strong on the economy and comes across well on TV and is articulate and a quick thinker on his feet, while Palin can rally the Christian conservative core of the Party which they need in place first and enthusiastically to then enable them to go out and try to win back Independents and moderates while still keeping that conservative core in place.

None of this will be easy for the Republicans, but so what, since running against Barack Obama wouldn't be easy for any challenger from any Party regardless of who they have on the ticket.

So if my theory is correct, that only Romney and Palin together have any chance, then the fact that Sanford and Ensign and others fall by the wayside with moral transgressions is really not that significant a loss to the Republicans anyway as those candidates were not going anywhere to begin with. So perhaps too much is being made of the potential negative impact on the GOP's future national hopes by the Sanford scandal.

But there is one other point, and that is the hypocrisy issue. And that can be stated quite simply. There are high public officials in both the Democratic and Republican Parties and among both liberals and conservatives who are being exposed for moral transgressions and infidelities with regard to marriage vows and commitment.

But you don't see Liberals and Democrats running around calling for amendments to the national Constitution to ban gay marriage and cement certain "family values" that they select to govern the conduct of the rest of us. It's conservatives and Republicans who are out calling for that, and perhaps its' time for them to work on their own personal family values, as we all need to do, before they run around telling the rest of us how we should conduct ours.

Carl Jeffers is a Los Angeles-and Seattle based columnist, TV political analyst, radio talk show host and commentator, and a national lecturer. E-mail: cjintel@juno.com

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