06.24.09

Sanford's Dereliction of Duty Trumps His Hypocrisy

That the South Carolina governor stepped out on his wife is his business, writes Paul Begala—though it does underscore the GOP’s culture of hypocrisy. Stepping out on his job, however, is the business of the people of South Carolina.

Plus, read more Daily Beast contributors' reactions to Mark Sanford's flameout.

The Sanford saga is about two things: dereliction of duty on the part of Mark Sanford and a culture of hypocrisy on the part of the GOP.

The fact that the governor stepped out on his wife is his business—and Mrs. Sanford’s. The fact that he stepped out on his job is the business of the people of South Carolina. There could have been a tornado, a hurricane, a prison riot, a terrorist attack—and if, God forbid, there had been, the state’s ability to respond would have been sorely compromised.

If you want to be incommunicado for days on end, become an insurance agent, not a governor. Dereliction of duty alone is enough to boot Sanford.

The South Carolina Constitution vests executive authority in the governor. Sure, the lieutenant governor can act in case of an emergency or temporary absence—but, as The State reported, “Neither the Constitution nor state law details what is an emergency or a temporary absence.” Back in 1981, a special committee recommended that the legislature clearly define those terms. It never did.

Legalities aside, it is shockingly irresponsible to just walk off the job—never mind that he was walking on the wild side. If you want to be incommunicado for days on end, become an insurance agent, not a governor. Dereliction of duty alone is enough to boot Sanford.

In fact it’s a better reason than the infidelity. Do we really have to go through this again? How FDR lifted us out of the Depression and whipped the Nazis while finding comfort with Lucy Mercer? How Nixon was a faithful husband but a corrupt president? Americans long ago sorted this out, wisely separating personal immorality from public duties.

But the Republicans have not. Since the birth of the Orwellian-named Moral Majority, the GOP has claimed it has cornered the market on morality. In truth, all it cornered the market on was hypocrisy. For decades Republicans have sanctimoniously lectured the rest of us—that they’re better husbands, better Christians, better fathers, better wives, better patriots. In so doing, they have been hoisted by their own petard, or, as Gov. Sanford might say, they have immolated themselves by their own sparking.

Do we really need moral lectures from the party of Mark Sanford, David Vitter, Larry Craig, Mark Foley, Newt Gingrich, Rudy Giuliani, Rush Limbaugh, etc.? Of course, the list of Democrats who have cheated might even be longer. My point is, no party has a monopoly on sexual virtue. So my Republican friends ought to give up their odd obsession with policing the sex lives of others.

Mark Sanford voted to impeach Bill Clinton. He was the first prominent Republican to call for the resignation of the adulterous GOP Speaker-to-be Bob Livingston. He opposes gay rights, gay adoption, gay marriage, even gay civil unions. He and his fellow Republicans ought to try actually practicing family values rather than constantly preaching them.

To be sure, Democrats have an analog to the Republicans’ self-proclaimed moral superiority; it’s our self-proclaimed intellectual superiority. Republican strategists have for years skewered smarty-pants Democrats as Ivy League elitists—often with good reason. But the most successful modern Republican studiously avoided making himself the avatar of sexual purity: Ronald Reagan wanted to be president, not preacher.

In 1978 Reagan was a former governor who had been narrowly defeated for the GOP presidential nomination by Gerald Ford. Plainly seeking another run at the presidency, Reagan was tending to his conservative base and plotting his big move. But a bigot named Briggs got in the way. John Briggs was a state senator in California who put Proposition 6 on the ballot, which sought to fire every gay teacher in the Golden State. In the Age of Anita Bryant, the proposition started with 75 percent support.

Harvey Milk heroically led the charge against the Briggs Initiative, but it was the opposition of Reagan that made Milk’s victory possible. David Mixner, who secretly met with Reagan to make the case for opposing Briggs, has written, “There is no doubt in my mind that the man who put us over the top was California Governor Ronald Reagan. His opposition to Proposition 6 killed it for sure.”

As Republicans wander in the wilderness, they keep saying they want to return to Reaganism. It seems to me that if Reagan, who himself had a failed marriage, could support gay rights 30 years ago, maybe the current crop of Republicans shouldn’t be so damn judgmental about Americans’ sex lives today.

Paul Begala is a CNN political contributor and a research professor at Georgetown University's Public Policy Institute. He was a senior strategist for the 1992 Clinton-Gore campaign and served as counselor to President Clinton in the White House.