Mark Sanford's Premature Political Obituary

There is nothing better for a Republican presidential candidate than to appear to be persecuted by the media. Everyone seems to have forgotten that when ...
by | June 24, 2009

There is nothing better for a Republican presidential candidate than to appear to be persecuted by the media. Everyone seems to have forgotten that when it comes to South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford.

With the revelation this morning that Sanford's mysterious trip was to Argentina, not the Appalachian Trail, some observers already are expecting that Republican primary voters will tell the governor to take a hike in 2012. For example, take a look at Chuck Todd and friends at NBC and the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza. Or, take a look at what Brad Warthen, who for years was one of the best journalists in South Carolina (now he's an unemployed blogger), has to say:

One thing we DO know for sure is that this puts an absolute and welcome end, post paid and that's all she wrote, on all the ridiculous, irresponsible, utterly moronic talk about Mark Sanford being presidential timber.

I think that's a bit premature. Democrats mistrust the mainstream media. Republicans trust that the mainstream media is lying to them. That perception of bias almost always colors Republican primary politics -- and it may come to Sanford's rescue.

I can't help but think back to the New York Times' Vicki Iseman story. Many wondered whether it would allow Mike Huckabee to reenter the picture for the Republican nomination or even sink John McCain's campaign.

What actually happened? The G.O.P. was outraged by the revelations -- outraged at the New York Times. Even McCain foes in the Republican Party such as Rush Limbaugh defended him against the accusations. If McCain didn't have the nomination wrapped up already, he did after that.

Or, consider the key role of the media in creating an affinity between the Republican rank-and-file and Sarah Palin. Some of the media coverage of Palin was excessive and unfair. Did the news that her daughter was pregnant really warrant more than a passing mention? At others times, the Alaska governor had no one to blame but herself. Palin flubbed the Katie Couric interview as badly as an interview can be flubbed -- and not because the questions were especially difficult.

But, even when the media wasn't being unfair, the collective effect of the negative coverage was to make Republican loyalists like Palin more. That's her big advantage going into 2012.

I'm not saying that all news is good news for Republicans. The coverage of Palin's missteps hurt her with independents and Democrats, even as Republicans rallied behind her.

What I am saying, though, is that among Republican primary voters (Sanford's only concern unless/until he is the Republican nominee), criticisms that come mainly from the media often ring hollow. If conservative media outlets or respected Republicans join in the criticism, that's when bad news can really have an impact.

Without a doubt, this story comes with downsides for Sanford. The governor's behavior and the shifting explanations for that behavior were genuinely strange. Republican elites (as opposed to activists) might doubt whether the governor is disciplined enough to win a presidential nomination. Fundraisers and elected officials tend to want to support a winner.

This story also could reflect problems ahead for Sanford. His communications apparatus may not be ready for a national campaign. Sanford may not have accepted that a presidential candidate has to make sacrifices. Republican state Sen. Jake Knotts -- a longtime Sanford foe -- was the first to publicly criticize the governor, which reflects that certain South Carolina Republicans are going to be a thorn in the side of his nascent presidential campaign.

The media, though, is also overstepping in certain ways. Why is it our business whether Sanford told his wife where he was going? If she doesn't care, why should we care? Despite the many reasonable questions surrounding this trip, Sanford still has an opportunity to portray himself as an innocent vacationer whom the press won't offer even a smidgen of privacy.

Importantly, most conservative blogs I've checked don't seem to be paying much attention to the story. Jim Geraghty of the National Review, for one, has a nuanced, if overall critical, take. Red State, the Corner, Powerline and Instapundit haven't said much, if anything.

Sanford is a stalwart fiscal conservative who is sometimes described as a libertarian. His niche in the Republican primary is likely to be supporters of the Club for Growth, the Cato Institute and Americans for Tax Reform, tea party protesters and perhaps some of the more mainstream elements of Ron Paul's campaign. Since when do any of those people care what the media thinks?

In truth, these people do care what the media thinks -- it's just that they often make a point of thinking the opposite. If Sanford comes out of this incident known as an enemy of the media, he may end up with more friends in the Republican Party.

Update: I have a few additional thoughts.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer

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