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Choosing the Lesser of Two Evils

As I wrote on Monday, Republicans may live to regret Mark Sanford’s victory in the special election in South Carolina’s First Congressional District. The former governor is a lightening rod for liberal attacks, and his hijinks will likely hurt the Republicans’ national brand and serve as yet another distraction in a GOP caucus that is already burdened by a host of other problems. But his decisive win illustrates that while scandal exacts a price from politicians, it need not destroy them. Ideology appears to trump morals for most of us.

Just as even those Democrats who were disgusted by Bill Clinton’s behavior were willing to defend him because they despised his Republican opponents, so, too, there were more than enough South Carolina Republicans who were willing to schlep to the polls to allow their party to hold onto this seat. The verdict was not so much one of the “redemption” that Sanford said he was seeking as much as it was one that registered a conservative constituency’s unwillingness to elect an ally of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

Of course, Sanford did pay a price for his shabby personal reputation. As New York Times blogger Nate Silver notes, his nine-point margin of victory represents a marked decrease from what he or any other Republican might have expected to win by in a neutral environment. The First District is, Silver calculates, 22 percent more Republican than the rest of the nation. Silver says the 13-point drop off is consistent with the results that researchers have found elsewhere when scandals are thrown into the electoral mix.

Thus, we can reasonably conclude that while quite a few Republicans simply couldn’t bring themselves to back a loathsome Republican, even more were unwilling to do anything that might empower a political party they consider even more repugnant. The moment Sanford stopped talking about being redeemed and starting campaigning with a cardboard cutout of Pelosi turned the election around.

Should we think ill of these conservative voters or brand them as religious hypocrites for acting in this manner? I think Jonah Goldberg has it exactly right when he writes today over at National Review that doing so is ridiculous. Defense of traditional moral values was not on the ballot in South Carolina yesterday. Indeed, it’s a cause that was lost a long time ago in this country and there’s no going back. Asking conservatives to punish Sanford in the name of their values by electing a liberal whose beliefs are antithetical to what they cherish was not reasonable. And Democrats who treat Bill Clinton like royalty and swear they would have given him a third term if they had been given the opportunity are in no position to blast Republicans for concluding that Sanford was the lesser of two evils.