Mark Sanford is poised to pull off one of the most impressive comebacks in modern political history.
Tuesday night he garnered 37 percent of the vote in a 16-person Republican primary. He appears likely to clinch the party's nomination for the special election to fill South Carolina's recently vacated First Congressional seat.
In a twist that could only happen in the alternate universe of South Carolina politics, the 2009 scandal that ended Sanford's marriage and torpedoed his 2012 presidential aspirations has served as a key prong of his comeback strategy.
He's playing to the electorate's Christian sensibilities with themes of grace, empathy, and forgiveness.
In his first campaign television ad released this cycle, a soft-spoken Sanford speaks plaintively of "a God of second chances."
Before audiences he offers apologies and explanations perhaps best described as "verging on psychobabble" with lines like, "Our brokenness is indeed our connection."
Prominent Republicans have argued that Sanford aims to convince the electorate that voting for him is tantamount to forgiving him:
"If Mark Sanford succeeds in making this election a referendum on the forgiveness of personal peccadillos, he could win," said Walter Whetsell, an adviser to former state senator John Kuhn, one of Sanford's now-vanquished primary opponents. "And that's precisely his strategy since he does not want voters to focus on his other, more substantive misdeeds in office, like his broken term limits pledge, his being AWOL from duty and his record-setting ethics fines."
A savvy politician parlays a dalliance and dereliction of duty once thought to be career-ending into a reason to vote him back into office. Mind-bending strategy -- and it appears to be working.
But what do we really know about Mark Sanford's journey in the months and years since his fall from grace?
Is he a changed man?
Can South Carolina trust Mark Sanford again?
Did he learn his lesson?
Consider what Sanford faced for deserting his post as chief executive of the state of South Carolina for a week and failing to communicate with his staff, his family, or his constituents in order to be with his mistress in Argentina:
· A slap on the wrist from the General Assembly.
· The loss of his post as head of the Republican Governors' Association.
· Ethics fines that sound hefty to most of us but not to a millionaire like Sanford.
· His wife of 21 years divorced him and wrote a tell-all book.
So he faced some consequences. But when most of us make grave personal mistakes and also break the law, we spend time in jail. We lose a job. We get voted out of office.
Perhaps it's possible that Sanford has learned his lesson without more stringent consequences imposed upon him. Perhaps he was able to internalize his wrongdoings and "repay" the public for his breach of trust in his own way under the direction of his newfound moral compass.
How Sanford has spent his free time since he left office offers some measure of his priorities and whether he has learned his lesson:
Sanford retreated to Coosaw. "You're wounded and you step away from life and you want that time alone. It becomes a very spiritual time, a very quiet time. A lot of introspection," he says. "It's not very productive in terms of the outer journey but incredibly productive on the inner journey." Most mornings, he'd wake before sunrise and, at first light, swim in the river that runs beside the plantation. To fill his days, he undertook a host of construction projects on the property, including a bridge and a barn... he built a pine cottage to house twenty years' worth of accumulated political mementos and memorabilia -- a mausoleum for his political career.
But, Sanford says, "life starts coming back at you." After a year and a half, he left Coosaw and moved to an apartment in Charleston. He did some commercial-real-estate deals and joined a couple of corporate boards. He popped up on Fox News to offer some political analysis. ...
To recap: After leaving the governor's office, Sanford retreated to his family plantation where he swam, had an 18-month "inner journey," literally built a shrine to his own political career, joined some corporate boards, dabbled in real estate, and got a paying gig offering political commentary on Fox News.
You'd think that a guy who's so anxious to run for the next available public office and didn't face the pressure of having to get a real job would have bothered to do something charitable over the past two years - even if only for the sake of repairing his public image. Given his apparent building skills, say, a Habitat for Humanity project?
In addition to Sanford's deeds, we can learn from his own words.
One of the most impressive displays of Sanford's arrogance in the fallout from his extramarital affair and tryst in Argentina was how -- on numerous occasions -- Sanford compared himself to King David. Here's a clip of late-night comedian Jon Stewart skewering Sanford for claiming the mantle of the Old Testament leader and ancestor of Jesus Christ:
Nothing says "humble thyself in the sight of the Lord" quite like comparing oneself to God's favorite anointed king.
In case you need a refresher on the Old Testament story:
King David, who was married to multiple wives and had several concubines, saw a married woman named Bathsheba bathing on the roof one day and lusted after her so mightily that he summoned her to his palace, slept with her, impregnated her, and then had her husband Uriah -- one of King David's loyal soldiers -- murdered on the battlefield.
As a result of David's bad behavior, God was angry with him. David repented, and God forgave him, but David's actions did not go unpunished.
God sent the prophet Nathan to relay to David that the following consequences were forthcoming:
· David's child with Bathsheba would die.
· Someone close to David (it ended up being his own son) would have sex with his wives publicly.
· David would face continued turmoil within his own house.
All of those things happened, including the rape and murder of more of David's children and extended family.
Mark Sanford seems to have forgotten the dire consequences part of King David's story.
What else has Sanford said and done that might give us insight as to where his heart and mind are these days and how he may have changed?
Earlier this year he made a request of his ex-wife Jenny that doesn't exactly suggest remorse or empathy, his favorite virtue du jour.
When the First Congressional seat became open earlier this year, there was speculation that Sanford's ex-wife Jenny, who has a reputation as a shrewd political operative, would run for Congress herself. Once Sanford learned that Jenny was not planning to run, he went to visit her and proposed an idea:
"Since you're not running, I want to know if you'll run my campaign," he said. "We could put the team back together."
According to sources, Jenny Sanford was floored by the request. She'd just asked Sanford not to run himself because of the toll it would take on the family.
When she indicated that she wasn't interested, he upped the ante:
"I could pay you this time," Sanford said.
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One of Mark Sanford's greatest campaign assets is how telegenic he is. He comes across as modest and down-home on television, which is the only form of contact most people ever have with him. He's taking his message of grace, empathy, and forgiveness straight to an electorate with a large percentage of conservative Christian voters, and that message is resonating.
But the grace that Sanford talks about sounds a lot like what German Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer dubbed "cheap grace" in his book The Cost of Discipleship:
Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession.... Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.
We can't know what's in Mark Sanford's heart. Maybe he is a changed man. But what he's said and done since his fall from grace -- especially in his time out of the public eye -- should give voters pause.
As former United States Senator Ernest "Fritz" Hollings has always said, "There's no education in the second kick of a mule."
Mark Sanford has already kicked South Carolina once.