Alternative headline I rejected: "Why I think Mark Sanford is a big phony." I considered that for one reason: It got a lot of attention the last time I applied that thought to a politician, and that’s what this situation calls for. The nonsense we’re hearing about Mark Sanford being considered as a running mate for John McCain is nothing but buzz — buzz that Mr. Sanford himself has carefully laid the groundwork for over the years, stroking media types inside the Beltway while neglecting South Carolina. It’s a thing without substance, amplified by Sunday talk shows. But in politics, buzz begets buzz, and before the volume on this particular noise rises too high, allow me to point out a few things.
Earlier today, I called someone I know who was close to the McCain campaign in South Carolina and said, "Consider this to be a crisis line call. I need you to reassure me of something very quickly…" The person I called laughed, and said, "I know exactly why you’re calling." This person had heard the buzz too, and thought it just as ridiculous as I did. He went on to say there was no way such a thing would happen. Good to hear. And it’s what I would expect to hear — there’s no way the John McCain I’ve described and praised in The State and in this forum could make such a mistake. But this is a matter of such import that I don’t believe in leaving anything to chance.
On the offhand slight risk that something like this could happen, let me offer just a few of the reasons why it shouldn’t. I’m not offering these in any order, so take them any way you like. Nor is this list all-inclusive. I’m just trying to get some of these things on the record:
- Before putting Sanford on a long list, much less a short one, McCain should ask some of the true-blue conservative Republicans who helped him win the S.C. primary what they think. Start with House Speaker Bobby Harrell and Attorney General Henry McMaster. And demand that they be absolutely, brutally honest. Tell them not to let any misplaced notions about Reagan’s "11th commandment" get in the way. I haven’t asked either of them about this, but I suspect that the honest assessment of either of those leaders would lead to the same conclusion: Don’t even think about it.
- It occurs to me that the first person Sen. McCain would ask would be Lindsey Graham. And in most things, that would be a wise call. But I submit that as smart as Lindsey Graham is, he has not been here in the trenches, watching with frustration as Mark Sanford has frittered away the very real chance he had of making a positive difference as governor. Don’t get me wrong — I think Sen. Graham’s honest assessment would ALSO be that he should steer clear of Sanford. I’m just saying that those who’ve had front-row seats right here in SC since 2002 have much more relevant, up-to-date information.
- Some would superficially say Sanford would be a good match for McCain — aren’t they both "limited government" conservatives? But here’s the glaring difference: John McCain has devoted his life to public service, and believes in going to great lengths to make sure government performs its vital role in society as efficiently as possible. Mark Sanford is not a good-government guy (as we thought he was when we endorsed him in 2002). He is an anti-government guy. He exudes contempt for the public sector and all who devote themselves to it. This is something that it takes time with Sanford to understand. I didn’t realize it myself until he’d been in office several months. When it finally hit me, I confronted him about, saying essentially: You ran as a "conservative," but you’re not that at all. You’re a pure libertarian, with all that entails. He did not disagree. This may sound like I’m awfully slow on the uptake, and maybe I am. But it’s easy to be color-blind in this range. Modern conservatism tends to have its strongly libertarian components, so it’s easy to miss when a candidate or officeholder crosses the line into radical libertarianism, to the expense of commonsense conservatism. At least I began to realize it in his first year in office, and didn’t have to wait until he vetoed the entire state budget in 2006.
- Let’s elaborate on that veto for a moment. It was a watershed event. If you had doubted where Sanford was coming from before, you would have no excuse for doing so afterward. I urge you to go back and read my column on the subject. In that veto, Mr. Sanford demonstrated more clearly than ever that being a hero to the Club for Growth is far, far more important to him than the business of actually governing South Carolina. If his veto had been upheld, there would have been no government in South Carolina — no highway patrol, no prison guards, no anything. Of course, Mr. Sanford will say that he knew the Legislature would override him. What that says is that he relied upon the Legislature to be responsible, using that confidence as license to make a supremely irresponsible, completely ideological gesture. In that moment, he threw away what little credibility he had earned with his obsessively detailed budgets, which we had praised for doing what the Legislature should do: Set priorities, holding some government functions as higher than others. All that was thrown away with a stroke of the pen, which told us all that was just so much abstract posturing. But the governor was just expressing his disillusionment with the process, you say? Well in that case, why not resign from office? That would make the point in a more dramatic, and more effective, way, without abdicating stewardship of the state.
- But he wouldn’t do that — resign, that is — because that would mean he was no longer positioned to be picked as someone’s veep. And Mark Sanford’s tenure as governor all points to that being his motive. It makes sense of all that doesn’t add up otherwise. Take his supercilious manner toward the Legislature… Taking those two pigs into the lobby makes a great anecdote if your plan is to develop a national reputation as an anti-pork crusader. And if you did it after all other ways of communicating were exhausted, it might even have some validity. But ask the conservative Republican lawmakers who run General Assembly whether Mark Sanford has done the due diligence in trying to work for them to the betterment of South Carolina, and rest assured: The majority would say the stiff-arming contempt that was the central feature of the piglet publicity stunt reflects the governor’s default mode of dealing with lawmakers of his own party.
- That contempt toward his own fellow Republicans should not be seen, in UnParty terms, as a potential virtue. Yes, it has tickled me at times to see how Mark Sanford sneers at party hoopla, despising parties as I do. But there is no upside to set alongside this contempt — no record of reaching out to, and working with, Democrats or independents, either. Sanford’s independence from his party is not that of the stalwart iconoclast, but of the radical individual who needs no one, and acts accordingly. The political career of Mark Sanford has been all about Mark Sanford. This is not that he is an egomaniac; it is that this is his philosophy. He thinks everyone should be equally focused on self, and private concerns.
- An illustration of that point: Back during the 2002 campaign, I understood Mr. Sanford’s oft-stated wish to make South Carolina a better, more welcoming place for his sons to grow up in as being standard politicanspeak for, "I want to make South Carolina a better place for ALL children to grow up in." But no. If you look at his policy positions, he really meant HIS sons. And he wanted to advance policies that encouraged everyone to think first of advantages to them and their own, rather than to South Carolina as a whole. An illustration of THAT…
- … Take his position with regard to education. First, he has no interest in PUBLIC education whatsoever. One of his two great policy priorities (the other is reducing the income tax, to which I will return) is to divert state funds to pay people to take their kids out of public schools, thereby reducing public support for the schools, which leads to less funding, which leads to the reduction of the one biggest item in the state budget. His ideological defenders would say, "No, it’s not about STATE funds; it’s about letting taxpayers keep their OWN money." But that speaks to my point. The governor and his ideological ilk look at public policy as CONSUMERS, not as CITIZENS. A consumer holds to the ridiculous notion that the taxes a parent pays toward supporting public schools are a sort of user fee; therefore if the parent sends HIS kids to private school or homeschools, he shouldn’t have to pay the taxes. But folks, public schools don’t exist merely as a service to the kids who attend them at a given moment, or to their families. If they did, we wouldn’t HAVE public schools, since only about a quarter of taxpayers have kids in the schools at any given time. We have public schools because universal education is a crucial goal of the society as a whole. We have public schools in order to create an educated society, so we have people with skills to fill the overwhelming majority of jobs in the state. We have the schools so that kids have a chance of becoming informed, constructive citizens, voters and taxpayers, rather than rotting away on street corners or in prison. On the most basic level, we have them so that all of us — from toddlers to retirees — can live in safe, prosperous communities, rather than in a Somalia-like environment of despair. And it is one of those few things that the market would never, ever provide on its own, because only society as a whole — rather than private actors — can profit from providing universal education (as opposed to targeted service to segments of the market, which can be profitable to a provider.)
- To repeat a point I made in my column Sunday, this same kind of Philosophy of the Self is what informs the governor’s other great policy priority: Cutting the state income tax. Our Legislature is full of conservatives who LOVE cutting taxes, but relatively few of them would cite the governor’s choice — the income tax — as their priority. For one thing, it’s not relatively high. But the governor chooses that one for reasons related to what someone at the state Chamber of Commerce once said to me about the S.C. Policy Council: It doesn’t speak for business, or anyone who is creating jobs or might create jobs and wealth for the community. It speaks for people who have put all that behind them, who have made their pile and just want to shelter it from taxes. So would the governor’s approach to tax policy. This is also his economic development policy, almost entirely. He simply does not believe in the government investing in anything like endowed chairs; he believes the way to stimulate the economy is to make this a more attractive place for those who place legal tax evasion first and foremost.
- Nothing Mark Sanford has done in his life, in either the public or private sector (and he’s spent very little time in the latter, so no balance for the ticket there), demonstrates any qualification or aptitude to be serve as president, should it come to that.
Disregard all political considerations for a moment: For the reasons above, and many more, placing Mark Sanford a heartbeat away from the presidency would be a great disservice to the nation. But if you want to consider the politics:
- If McCain can’t win South Carolina without Sanford on his ticket, he should quit now. While I believe Barack Obama would break the patter of recent decades to campaign here (after the turnout he inspired in the primary, he could hardly do less than to put in an appearance) and would have an outside chance, it would still be McCain’s to lose. And Hillary "Old School" Clinton wouldn’t even try here.
- McCain should never make the mistake of thinking Mark Sanford is the kind of guy who would get him in good with the portion of the base that he needs to win over. Think about it: Who is it that GOP voters have been voting for as the McCain alternative? Mike Huckabee. Gov. Huckabee is, on many levels, the opposite of Mark Sanford. Consider this one aspect: Mark Sanford is the hero of the Club for Growth, for all of the reasons I cited above — they love a guy who prefers anti-government posturing to governing, and their membership tends to consist of kinds of people who are independently wealthy to the degree that they see themselves as not needing the rest of society, and wonder what value other see in any sort of government. Meanwhile, Mike Huckabee is anathema to the Club for Growth, and the feeling is mutual — he calls it the Club for Greed.
- The rise of Gov. Huckabee to the point of becoming the ONLY Republican alternative to Sen. McCain reflects a yearning in the base for something Mark Sanford could not satisfy. Mike Huckabee is no country-club conservative, but — as he puts it himself — a Boys and Girls-Club conservative. He is someone who shares the appreciation that ordinary people have for society’s institutions and the important role that they play in our lives. He knows that regular folks rely on institutions — including government — to provide things that mere individualism cannot offer. This is why he was even willing to go along with a tax increase to make sure the state adequately provided the basic services citizens rely upon. As he also says, Mr. Huckabee reminds voters of the guy they work with. The Club for Growth is like Mitt Romney — it looks like the guy who wants to lay them off.
- What’s the one issue that has been most damaging to McCain this year? It’s illegal immigration, and the huge resentment of it out in the base. Is Mark Sanford a likely spokesman for that resentment? Of course not. That’s not a Club for Growth, fat-cat type of issue by any stretch. Once again, Huckabee would be a far more likely asset in this regard. (But don’t think this is about pushing Huckabee — it’s just that he’s the guy most often mentioned, so he comes first to mind, and when he does, he stands head-and-shoulders above Sanford on point after point.)
- McCain would have good reason to want to counter an Obama candidacy with someone younger and more representative of "change." But Mark Sanford is one of the few people he might choose who actually have less in the way of accomplishments in public office than Sen. Obama. And remember that there is an inspirational, populist element in the appeal of Obama (and of Huckabee as well). Sanford would not bring that. As lacking in success as his tenure as governor has been, it looks better than his six years in Congress. All he accomplished there was making headlines for sleeping on his futon — a fact that perfectly encapsulates his career (plenty penny-pinching publicity stunts, few actual accomplishments).
- Remember, we’re not talking about a guy who achieved a lot in the private sector, either. He managed to make a nice little pile without having a big impact on the business world, and then he essentially retired. Sanford is no Mitt Romney. Sanford has spent most of his last two decades in public office; if he hasn’t accomplished anything in public office, what has he accomplished? The answer: not much.
- An argument could be made that a governor would help balance the ticket. And for a longtime senator, that’s true. But why this governor? Why a governor who is essentially an anti-governor? Why not someone like the governor of Florida, who not only could help deliver a critical swing state (remember the election of 2000), but who actually supported the McCain campaign when it counted.
- That brings me to my last point for the moment (I know I’m leaving things out, but at some point I’ve got to go home for the day). In classic Mark Sanford style, our governor sat out the recent primary. At a time when both U.S. senators and other top Republicans laid their reputations on the line stating preferences at a critical moment in our state’s and nation’s history, at a time when most Republicans in the state were working as hard as they could for the candidate of their choice, Mark Sanford kept his theoretical options open by staying out of it. His apathy was palpable. There was nothing in it for Mark Sanford, so why make the gesture. Far better to choose someone who endorsed ANOTHER candidate (that could at least add balance) than someone who did not care whom was nominated.
I’m sure that the above rambling list will add to further discussion, and I will have additional points to make. For now I will close with the thought that there is a galaxy of reasons why Mark Sanford would be an awful choice for veep, and no good reasons to the contrary. Y’all take it from there.