After Sanford, What Do Republicans Do Now?

Mark Sanford's decision to come clean about his extramarital affair today is just the beginning of the story. There will inevitably be other shoes to drop: What did his staff know? Did any state employees lie for him? Did Sanford use any state funds to facilitate or conceal his affair? After all, the South Carolina governor did take off in his official vehicle last Thursday when he made his secret getaway to Buenos Aires. Will he be forced to resign the governor's office? While we've seen politicians bounce back from bad behavior before (just ask Bill Clinton or Newt Gingrich), all of this means Sanford's 2012 presidential aspirations are likely over. But the bigger question is: What do Republicans do now?

It was barely a week ago that Sen. John Ensign, another GOP rising star, admitted his own affair. Ensign, though still largely a political unknown nationally, had been tagged by many within the party as an up-and-comer with the ability to help the GOP rebuild in the era of Obama. Today's announcement from Sanford was like a sucker-punch for a party that has still not quite managed to regain its political footing in recent months. "We look like the party of hypocrisy," one frustrated GOP strategist said today. "How low can we go?"

It hasn't just been a bad month for the GOP, it's been a bad year. The party can't seem to find its way out of the wilderness. There's no obvious leader, and there are no obvious issues they can lay claim to against President Obama and the Democrats. The GOP has been unable to gain traction on anything—but that was a problem well before we learned about two of its 2012 hopefuls cheating on their spouses. What's happened with Sanford and Ensign is no doubt a blow to the party, but Republicans were already struggling with question of identity: What kind of GOP does it want to be?

The answer is still unclear. The GOP's claim to be the party of "family values" has taken a hit—though it was already in a tenuous position. (Do the names Mark Foley, Larry Craig and David Vitter ring a bell?) There's been a push to move the GOP away from social politics and more toward mainstream issues, but there's no obvious Republican, much less 2012 candidate, that seems willing to take up that mantle. In fact, the GOP seems just as lost as it did before—though the field of hopefuls has gotten considerably narrower. The most obvious beneficiaries of the fallout seems to be the people already sniffing around the race, including Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty and Haley Barbour. Like Sanford, all three have been critical of Obama's stimulus bill and approach to federal spending, a position popular among GOP fiscal conservatives. Barbour, a former Republican National Committee chairman turned governor of Mississippi, benefits most strategically: He's taking over Sanford's chairmanship of the Republican Governors Association, a promotion that not only offers him a higher profile but helps him build on already broad national political contacts. The problem: None of the guys (so far at least) has elicited much excitement among the GOP base. Thus, the march through the wilderness continues ...