South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford is smart, handsome, principled—and no longer a political threat to President Obama in 2012. After going AWOL and admitting to an extramarital affair in Argentina, the now resigned chairman of the Republican Governors Association and oft-mentioned presidential candidate is political toast. But Sanford's pain is Obama's gain. By my count, Sanford is no less than the 10th horndog whose comeuppance has benefited Obama. This happily married president always seems to get a piece of the action.
Obama first realized the political benefits of sex scandals in 1995 when his congressman on Chicago's South Side, Mel Reynolds, resigned (and went to jail) for having sex with a 16-year-old. A local state senator, Alice Palmer, left her seat to run for Congress in a special election; Palmer lost to Jesse Jackson Jr. and decided to try to reclaim her seat. But it was too late: Obama challenged her petitions, kept Palmer off the ballot and won election to public office for the first time.
Obama also benefited from the mother of all sex scandals, President Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky. Had Clinton managed to keep his pants zipped, his vice president, Al Gore, almost certainly would have been elected president in 2000. (A big George W. Bush campaign theme was to "restore honor and dignity to the Oval Office"). If Gore had served two terms, in 2008 the country would have been ready for a different kind of change—the Republicans. No Monica. No Obama.
A footnote to the impeachment drama came when then House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who had blasted Clinton for Lewinsky, was himself revealed to be in an extramarital affair with a staffer. Just as the House was voting on impeachment, his successor, Bob Livingston, was outed as an adulterer (by Larry Flynt) and forced to resign. The double whammy undermined the Republican revolution; the new speaker, Denny Hastert, proved a weaker leader than Gingrich and the GOP slowly lost seats. This put control of the House within the reach of Rahm Emanuel and the Democrats in 2006.
Emanuel succeeded that year in retaking the House for many reasons, but the one Republicans pointed to most often was the case of Florida Republican Mark Foley, the GOP representative who tried to seduce underage House pages online. By some accounts, the Foley scandal, which erupted just weeks before the '06 midterms, cost Republicans 12 seats. President Obama now enjoys a comfortable Democratic margin in the House that lets him put a progressive stamp on legislation.
But Obama wouldn't have been elected to the U.S. Senate, much less president, without a few more sex scandals yet. In the 2004 Illinois Democratic Senate primary, Obama badly trailed multimillionaire Blair Hull for months. He and Michelle agreed that if he lost that race, he was out of politics. Then divorce papers revealed that Hull's wife had accused him of physically assaulting her. (Hull said he didn't want to "relitigate" his divorce.) Obama was already moving in the polls, and he had to fend off other candidates, but after the scandal he surged into the lead and won the primary.
At first the general election pitted Obama against GOP Senate nominee Jack Ryan, a popular banker expected by many to win handily. Until, that is, Ryan's wife, TV actress Jeri Ryan, said her husband pressured her to accompany him to sex clubs and have sex in front of strangers. Ryan withdrew from the race and Obama cruised to victory against fringe candidate Alan Keyes.
During the 2008 campaign, John Edwards had an affair with Rielle Hunter, a campaign videographer. Edwards dropped out earlier than expected, before Super Tuesday, and his campaign said at the time that money wasn't the reason. Top staffers urged him to quit; according to George Stephanopoulos, they had secretly agreed among themselves to blow up Edwards's campaign rather than let him win the nomination and risk destroying the party's chances in November. Had Edwards stayed in, he would have siphoned votes from Obama (he took very few from Hillary Clinton) and, in an extremely close race, likely tipped the nomination to Clinton.
Obama won the general election without the help of a sex scandal, but the surprisingly strong Democratic tide (minus the backlash against New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who was caught frequenting prostitutes) was at least partly attributable to disgust with Republican hypocrisy. There was Sen. David Vitter, whose name was in the little black book of the "D.C. Madam," and Sen. Larry Craig. Craig's arrest for loitering in the men's room of the Minneapolis airport—and his "wide stance" explanation—turned Republicans into laughingstocks.
The embarrassments for the GOP continued: just last week, Nevada Sen. John Ensign, a "family-values" conservative like Vitter, admitted to an affair with a staffer. Vitter has survived politically, and Ensign might, too. But these scandals hardly seem like they will enhance the party's image as it enters into major domestic policy negotiations with Obama.
The Republicans' most promising 2012 nominee would be a smart, fresh face with a reputation for tolerance and a strong connection to the party's conservative base. Despite his problems in South Carolina, which were fueled by his refusal to accept stimulus money, Mark Sanford fits that bill. Or did. Now the party is more likely to go with Mitt Romney or Sarah Palin (or Haley Barbour, a former lobbyist turned Mississippi governor)—or someone easier for the president to beat.
Barack Obama still knows how to get lucky.