Forgive Mark Sanford

Many things happened while Mark Sanford was governor of South Carolina, but the one event everyone remembers was really a cover story: the ill-fated hike down the Appalachian Trail that turned out to be an extramarital affair with a woman from Argentina.

Sanford is now hiking the comeback trail, leading a crowded field of Republicans seeking to win a congressional seat left vacant by Tim Scott’s appointment to the Senate. There are two ways to look at Sanford’s re-entry into politics.

One way is proposed by Sanford himself. “I absolutely failed in my personal life and my marriage but one place I never did fail was with the taxpayers,” he has said.

The other perspective is offered by one of Sanford’s opponents, Teddy Turner. The money line in Turner’s anti-Sanford ad is, “Sugar, just give me one more chance.”

Sanford is a complicated case. Not only was he unfaithful to his wife, but he bailed on the state for four days to visit his “soul mate.” Nobody knew where he was. There is some controversy over how much taxpayers footed the bill for his unexplained jaunts.

In an ideal world, Sanford would have disqualified himself as a candidate for the nomination of a party that talks about the sanctity of marriage. From Bill Clinton to Newt Gingrich and Rudy Giuliani, I’ve generally asked: If a man’s wife can’t trust him, why should the voters?

Yet Turner’s ad gives Sanford company he never really kept. “I know I’ve spent too much, but what’s a few trillion?” the actor asks Sugar. “It was all for you. But I’ve changed. I’ll keep my promises this time.”

Sanford wasn’t one of those Republicans who spent a lot of money. He constantly fought legislators in his own party over spending increases, proposing state budgets that grew no faster than inflation plus population growth. He erased an unconstitutional deficit without raising taxes or raiding trust funds.

That’s why a lot of big-government Republicans sang “Happy Trails” when Sanford got himself in trouble.

In 2005, Sanford’s vetoes knocked back what would have been 9.1 percent growth in the state budget to 7.5 percent. The following year, he vetoed the state budget in its entirety.

Sanford vetoed 243 items in the legislature’s next spending plan, totaling $167 million. He was one of the few Republican governors who resisted taking stimulus funds, and then wanted to use the Obama money to pay down the state debt rather than finance spending increases that would eventually be billed to the taxpayers.

Once Sanford vetoed 106 pork-barrel projects and was overruled on all but one. He arrived at the legislature with a pig under each arm.

In 2010, Sanford was one of just four governors to receive an “A” grade on the Cato Institute’s fiscal report card. The libertarian think tank praised Sanford for cutting the small business tax rate from 7 percent to 5 percent, for cutting sales and income tax rates, and for projections showing general fund spending to be slightly lower than when he took office.