Thursday, March 21, 2013

Seeking Political Redemption

It is a story that we see time and time again. A rising political star with eyes on a higher office suddenly falls from grace due to a scandal (usually sexual). In just the last few years, John Edwards, David Petraeus, Anthony Weiner, John Ensign, Eric Massa, Mark Souder, and several others from both major political parties have found themselves suddenly out of political favor after a sexual scandal. Sometimes such politicians seek to return to office in hopes of finding political redemption in the ballot box. The latest politician testing to see if voters have forgiven him is Mark Sanford in South Carolina. The former Governor of the Palmetto State is hoping to return to U.S. House of Representatives in the same district that he represented before heading to the governor's mansion. In 2009, the often-rumored presidential hopeful suddenly found himself off the list of conservative favorites for the 2012 campaign. After disappearing to sneak off to Argentina to visit his mistress, his gubernatorial staff claimed he was "hiking the Appalachian Trail" (which I have hiked in the literal sense, but not in this new euphemistic manner). Now divorced and engaged to his Argentine mistress, Sanford hopes voters are willing to give him a second chance. On Tuesday, Sanford received the most votes in the Republican primary for the congressional seat. The seat is open because South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley appointed Representative Tim Scott to the U.S. Senate following Senator Jim DeMint's resignation. The problem for Sanford is he failed to get more than 50% to gain the Republican nomination, so he now faces a runoff. Whoever wins the runoff will face Elizabeth Colbert Busch, who gained the Democratic nomination Tuesday. She is the sister of comedian (and former South Carolina presidential candidate) Stephen Colbert, who has even been campaigning for her.

The question now for Sanford is: can he win the runoff? Although he easily took first place in Tuesday's voting, that was expected as he was the most well-known candidate in the crowded field of 16 candidates. Sanford's 37 percent put him well ahead of the 13 percent captured by second-place finisher Curtis Bostic, a former Charleston County Council member. Yet, more than 60 percent of voters chose a candidate other than Sanford. Many of the candidates ran as anti-Sanford candidates. Thus, Sanford's ceiling of support may not be much more than what he received Tuesday. Ultimately, it seems to come down to whether or not voters trust Sanford and are willing to forgive him. Sanford seems to recognize this. His first campaign ad featured him talking about changing Washington and then confessing:
I've experienced how none of us go through life without mistakes. But in their wake we can learn a lot about grace, a God of second chances and be the better for it.
So he frames his campaign as God giving him a second chance (this ad, by the way, was mocked in an ad by candidate Teddy Turner, a Republican whose parents are Ted Turner and Jane Fonda). On election night, Sanford repeated this theme in comments as he celebrated his first-place finish:
There's this amazing reservoir of human grace out there that's a reflection of God's grace, and I've seen it first hand.
This rhetoric about seeking forgiveness and redemption from both God and voters - and almost treating the judgment of voters as a sign of God's favor - is an interesting but logical outgrowth of our age of confessional politics. As I noted in my book on religious rhetoric in presidential campaigns (Presidential Campaign Rhetoric in an Age of Confessional Politics), politicians today are expected to publicly confess to the people as if we the people are the priests. Sanford is modeling that expectation and treating the people as the ones able to truly offer him absolution. It will be interesting to see if the people give Sanford another chance in the runoff. And if they do not, it will be even more interesting to see how he frames the loss in relation to God's grace.

 

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