South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford's bizarre disappearance and sudden re-emergence last week to confess an extramarital affair is cause for liberals and Democrats to rejoice, but not for the typically narrow, partisan motive that there's good news to be found in bad news for the other guys.
Sure, there is the satisfying schadenfreude that comes from seeing yet another social conservative fall far short privately of the moral standards he set publicly for others. The list of prominent Republicans bitten by the sexual serpent is big and growing, including as it does former Speaker Newt Gingrich, former almost-Speaker Bob Livingston, airport toe-tapping former Sen. Larry Craig, and page-pestering former Rep. Mark Foley.
Mr. Sanford has yet to join the ranks of these "formers," though reports over the weekend indicate that he seriously considered resigning. Here's hoping he stays in office, finishes his term and even continues to nurture his rumored aspirations to run for president in 2012 - because Mr. Sanford's survival could signal the beginning of a national consensus, spanning the American ideological spectrum, that politicians should be judged on their public performance rather than their private behavior.
Liberals and Democrats have also been caught up in sex scandals, of course: Congressman Barney Frank, former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, and a certain ex-president who introduced the unfortunate and rather sexist phrase "bimbo eruption" to American politics lead the list of notables. But liberals rarely raise high personal banners as the moral standards by which to measure public officials.
Thus, the real potential upside of the spate of such incidents that have befallen Republicans is that it may finally persuade conservatives - especially those who proclaim to believe in redemption - to help forge a Chinese wall for politicians, separating their personal and public conduct.
When that happens, only the prurient and the puritanical will continue to insist upon the relevance of private behavior to public performance.
To the puritanical, somehow private behavior proxies for public trustworthiness, as if cheating on one's spouse leads politicians inexorably to budget mismanagement or poor judgment during roll call votes. (By such logic, faithfully married citizens never cheat on their taxes, right?) And the prurient demand personal purity as precondition for public service so they can snicker with delight when an elected official is caught in some extramarital affair or homosexual tryst.
Of course, if moral transgressions lead to lawbreaking, politicians deserve what they get. Mr. Spitzer and Mr. Foley went beyond the political crime of hypocrisy into potential illegality: The former scored political points breaking up illegal sex rings before being caught with a prostitute, and the latter voted against some protections for gay Americans and on behalf of children while harassing young boys. The tough cases are those, like former President Bill Clinton's, where it is less clear whether an immoral yet legal tryst led to the abuse of power to cover it up.
The lies Mr. Sanford instructed his staff to tell on his behalf (they initially claimed he was hiking the Appalachian Trail, not flying off to Argentina to meet with his lover) border on public malfeasance, but this bit of misdirection was at best a political misdemeanor.
I oppose most of what Mr. Sanford stands for politically. His showy rejection of federal stimulus money targeted for his state was a crass publicity stunt designed to garner national attention for Mr. Sanford at the expense of his constituents, many of whom are struggling economically.
Slick posturing of this sort, rather than his painful and at times painfully honest public confession last week, are reason enough to hope his presidential ambitions end at the ballot box in 2012, either during the Republican primary or in the general election.
Should Mr. Sanford's ambitions founder on the shoals of a personal scandal, however, yet another opportunity will be lost to establish the long-overdue separation between private comportment and public service. So here's hoping he doesn't resign or, if he does, it is a matter of personal choice rather than him bowing to political pressure.
Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears regularly in The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is email@example.com.