THE BLOG

Mark Sanford's New Integrity Test

05/08/2013 02:37 pm ET | Updated Jul 08, 2013

As Republicans soul-search about how to align themselves with the contemporary values and concerns of the American people, global climate change apparently remains verboten. In fact, the GOP is moving farther away from its own voters on the issue, not to mention the new voters it hopes to attract.

That makes last Tuesday's election of Mark Sanford to the House of Representatives even more interesting. As governor of South Carolina in 2007, Sanford was one of several Republican governors who acknowledged anthropogenic climate change and argued that it could be addressed with conservative market-based solutions.

Sanford's election to the House already is a fascinating story -- a dramatic come-from-behind victory and a dramatic comeback for a man who left his governorship in disgrace. He won this week without the support of the Republican National Campaign Committee, but with the backing of the Tea Party Express.

Therein lies a climate-related subplot. Three years ago, the Tea Party helped defeat another Republican congressman from South Carolina -- Bob Inglis -- after he acknowledged the reality of global warming. Sanford will have to stand for reelection again next year. Will he be intimidated by the Tea Party and the ideological militancy of the Republican Party, and flip-flop on climate change?

Or will he begin restoring his integrity by remaining true to his past position and joining the small group of Republicans who recognize that ignoring climate change is one of the issues that makes the GOP look like "the stupid party"?

As he contemplates the politics, Sanford might ask himself how voters will react next year to the fact that on big national issues such as gun control, budget sequester and climate change, Congress repeatedly ignores the wishes of the majority of the American people. Rather than the public interest, it routinely serves special interests like the National Rifle Association, the Tea Party, and Big Oil.

Inglis, who now runs a project to persuade conservatives that there are ideologically pure ways to deal with global warming, cites a recent poll in which 60 percent of respondents who classified themselves as Republicans or Republican-leaning want more action on climate change.

Here is what Sanford wrote six years ago in the Washington Post, a time when several Republican governors of coastal states -- including Charlie Crist in Florida, Sarah Palin in Alaska, Mitt Romney in Massachusetts and Arnold Schwarzenegger in California -- recognized that their states were threatened by climate change:

For the past 20 years, I have seen the ever-so-gradual effects of rising sea levels at our farm on the South Carolina coast. I've had to watch once-thriving pine trees die in that fragile zone between uplands and salt marshes. I know the climate change debate isn't over, but I believe human activity is having a measurable effect on the environment. The real "inconvenient truth" about climate change is that some people are losing their rights and freedoms because of the actions of others -- in either the quality of the air they breathe, the geography they hold dear, the insurance costs they bear or the future environment of the children they love...

I am a conservative conservationist who worries that sea levels and government intervention may end up rising together. My earnest hope going forward is that we can find conservative solutions to the climate change problem -- ecologically responsible solutions based on free-market principles that both improve our quality of life and safeguard our freedoms.

Romney and Palin flip-flopped when they ran for the presidency. So did former governors Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota and Jon Huntsman of Utah. Sen. John McCain is the Senate's most notable climate flip-flopper, although he has been joined by GOP poster-boy Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.

So again, aware of what happened to Inglis when he stood with science rather than the Tea Party, will Sanford fall into silence or slip into denial? Or will he join the very small group of Republican realists who agree that we must confront global warming?

It's a question of whether he is more interested in restoring his integrity or his career in the House. Perhaps with some independence and ingenuity, he will find a way to do both.