The Governor Sanford story has been quite an event. At first, it seemed like he had just vanished-perhaps into the woods. Perhaps into some sort of alien spacecraft. Then it was claimed that he had gone on a hike on the Appalachian trail, perhaps to do some writing away from his family. Then it was revealed that he had gone to Argentina to visit a woman. Apparently Sanford had been having an affair with her.
This is, of course, yet another odd politician story. It is odd, in part, because a successful politician has, once again, thrown away a promising career. Sanford was considered as a possibility for the 2012 Presidential race. However, his recent actions have most likely Spitzered his political career. His wife, whom he claims has known about the affair for months, has taken the standard approach of the political wife and has not (as of this writing) condemned her husband’s actions. Such situations must be horrible for the wife and family. Not only does the wife learn that her husband is cheating on her, she also has to face the fact that his affair is a matter of national news. That has to hurt.
Such revelations naturally lead people to wonder why a politician would throw away a career for an affair. Naturally, psychologists will speculate about this and toss out various theories about men in power and so on. On the face of it, choosing to have an affair seems to be fundamentally irrational. After all, politicians seem to be caught fairly regularly and this, except for Bill Clinton, often turns out to be a career ending move. Sanford seems to be especially irrational-after all, he created a mystery that attracted nationwide attention and resulted in his affair being revealed. This action seems to be somewhat on par with Gary Hart’s challenge to the press to follow him. They did and got the now famous “monkey business” photo of Hart and Donna Rice. In contrast, Bill Clinton has largely gotten away with his affairs, remaining very popular with Democrats and foreign leaders.
It would certainly be interesting to sort out how some politicians get away with affairs while others doom their careers. Part of it no doubt depends on the personality of the politician. Bill Clinton is able to charm people and is regarded as having been successful. People are, no doubt, more inclined to forgive such people. Clinton also seems to have managed the aftermath of his affairs much better and he also did not have a holier than thou attitude or a self-righteous image (quite the contrary-he was quite clearly a slick Willy). Spitzer, in contrast, had such an attitude and hence his involvement with a prostitute destroyed his reputation.
I’ve noticed this pattern all through my life. Charming folks who are known womanizers tend to be judged less harshly than less charismatic folks who are supposed to be of “a better sort.” Sanford is not charming like Bill Clinton and he is supposed to have conservative values, so I expect he will take quite a beating.
Getting back to the question of why, the easy answer is to point out the obvious: when a person has a career risking affair, they either think they can get away with it or they value what they are getting from the affair more than what they are risking. Or perhaps they are merely being stupid.
From a political standpoint, this is a fairly serious blow for Republicans. The odds are that Sanford will be replaced by a Democrat and, as noted above, Sanford was being considered as a presidential candidate. While the Democrats have lost a governor or two recently, the can better afford such losses.