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Frank Rich on the National Circus: Mark Sanford Defeats the Bible Thumpers

Former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford leaves the voting booth after voting at his precinct in Charleston, S.C., on Tuesday, April 2, 2013. Sanford is facing former Charleston County councilman Curtis Bostic in the Republican runoff for South Carolina's vacant 1st District congressional seat.  (AP Photo/Bruce Smith)

Every week, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich talks with contributor Eric Benson about the biggest stories in politics and culture. This week: Mark Sanford's run-off victory, Rand Paul does the NRA one better, and Ben Carson, rising star of the outrageous.

Former South Carolina governor and famed Appalachian Trail non-hiker Mark Sanford won his GOP primary run-off for a House seat yesterday. He'll compete in the general election against a businesswoman, Elizabeth Colbert Busch, who, strange but true, is Stephen Colbert's sister. What do you make of Sanford's reemergence on the political scene?
First, that it’s tragic that Stephen Colbert’s family connection probably puts this race off-limits for satirical purposes on The Colbert Report. Second, that the GOP’s full-speed-ahead support for “traditional marriage” between “one man and one woman” is going to be a continued source of farce. Few states are more conservative than South Carolina, yet Sanford, whose traditional marriage included one man and two women (his wife and his Argentinian mistress, now his fiancée), easily beat a fervent Christian conservative opponent in a Republican primary. Conservative hypocrisy about marriage has been and will be a gift that keeps on giving to late-night comedians and the Democrats. Almost as amusing is watching how the political juggernaut of same-sex marriage is driving conservatives on the wrong side of history nuts. David Brooks and Ross Douthat, sympathetic to marriage equality in the past, are now writing churlish pieces demeaning it; Laura Ingraham and Bill O’Reilly got into a shouting match on Fox News last night because O’Reilly broke ranks and criticized those same-sex marriage opponents who “thump the Bible.” Speaking of Bible thumpers, it was particularly touching to watch Mark Sanford, in last night’s victory statement, thank “my God” at some length with his lover at his side. Both Rick Santorum and James Dobson, the former deity of Focus on the Family, had endorsed Sanford’s opponent. If the religious right can’t beat Mark Sanford in a Republican primary in South Carolina, can it win anywhere? 

Politico reported yesterday that Kentucky senator Rand Paul was raising money for a conservative group that believes the NRA "is too willing to compromise on gun rights." Among the group's targets is House majority leader Eric Cantor, no one's idea of a gun-control advocate. Paul won a more prominent national spotlight (and some serious 2016 whispers) with his drone filibuster. Will this banish him to the fringes?
Absolutely not. Rand Paul is the hottest politician in the Republican party right now. What remains of the GOP Establishment pooh-poohs him — John McCain, Karl Rove, the former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson — and certainly in his views about most everything, starting with foreign policy, Paul is the un-Bush. Which is why he is beloved by so many Republican voters. That drone filibuster established him as potentially the new Sarah Palin, a gun-totin’ Pa Grizzly who gives voice to the passions of his party’s radical right base. The Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell, who supported Paul’s primary opponent in his 2010 Senate race, has gone so far as to hire Paul’s campaign manager to run his own 2014 reelection campaign. Don’t expect Eric Cantor to fire back at Paul over guns or anything else. It’s far more likely that Cantor will at least figuratively lick those cowboy boots Paul wore onstage in his speech at CPAC. 

Speaking of the NRA, it released its 225-page school security plan proposing armed guards at all of the nation's schools. (Teachers who undergo training would also be able to pack heat.) Absent from the NRA's press conference was executive director Wayne LaPierre, a lightning rod since the Newtown shootings. Does this plan matter in any way? And does LaPierre's absence signify the NRA is paying some attention to its critics?
What matters is that although the NRA gets nuttier and nuttier, the prospects of tighter gun laws get dimmer and dimmer. Only 37 percent of Republicans favor new restrictions, and that means that the NRA and the GOP, with some significant Democratic help, will win this battle in Congress. Obama is speaking about gun control near the scene of the Aurora massacre in Colorado today; polls show most Americans, Republicans notwithstanding, favor some form of action. But with the possible exception of a bill on background checks for gun purchasers, nothing will go forward. As for LaPierre’s absence at this week’s press event, it was attributed to a technicality — the speaker was the head of the NRA task force on schools and guns, the former Arkansas congressman and Clinton impeachment zealot Asa Hutchinson. But it’s entirely possible La Pierre is being locked in a basement somewhere along with Todd Akin, Dick Morris, Christine (“I’m not a witch”) O’Donnell, and other recent public-relations embarrassments to the right. What was more notable about the NRA press conference was the wild amount of security — armed guards, a bomb-sniffing Labrador — enlisted to protect Hutchinson for a routine event at the National Press Club. According to the Times account, press photographers on hand were warned to “remain stationary.”

Over the last week, we've heard a lot from a new GOP star, Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon Ben Carson, an African-American conservative who likened gays to NAMBLA and bestiality enthusiasts on a Fox News appearance and then called his white liberal critics "the most racist people there are." Will we still be talking about Ben Carson a month from now? Or are we seeing a would-be "star" implode?
What I love about this guy is that he gave one anti-Obamacare speech this winter — at a National Prayer Breakfast, with the president present — and was immediately acclaimed a possible presidential contender by Republican leaders. Conservatives may talk about wanting to end affirmative action, but it is alive and well in the GOP. Carson hasn’t even run for office in Maryland, where he lives, but, hell, that shouldn’t stop the party for nominating him for the highest office in the land, or maybe vice-president on a Marco Rubio ticket. Carson-Rubio or Rubio-Carson in 2016: The Republicans’ problem with minority voters is solved! Carson’s incendiary recent statements suggest, however, that he is serious about the television career he has already expressed interest in pursuing once he retires later this year from Hopkins.  The question for Fox News is whether its racial quota will allow him to join Herman Cain in its ranks. Whatever happens, I hope Cain holds firm. If there’s one thing I miss from the 2012 presidential race, it’s “9-9-9.”

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Photo: Bruce Smith