“Mark Sanford is easy to overlook. If Republicans need a champion in the Obama era, there are more colorful candidates than the South Carolina governor. He doesn’t play electric bass, or to the Religious Right, like Mike Huckabee. He has made no attempt to rewrite the GOP’s almost forgotten small-government playbook like Minnesota’s Tim Pawlenty or Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal. Though he is popular, Sanford seems incapable of playing a red-meat populist like Sarah Palin. He looks plain, his philosophy is old, and he has an elegiac demeanor that seems incompatible with electoral politics.
But unlike many other Republican politicians of his stature, Sanford recognizes that there are limits to ambition, that government treasuries are not bottomless, and that no ideology can captain the globe. If the promise of “hope” in the form of bailouts fails to revive the American economy, Mark Sanford will be the GOP’s most dangerous man in 2012.
In recent weeks, he has become the unofficial spokesman against Obama’s trillion-dollar economic stimulus plan. Other Republican governors like Arnold Schwarzenegger beg for more federal subsidies, but Sanford has threatened to decline large portions of the bailout, preferring not to bridle South Carolinians with the accompanying obligations. While cable’s talking heads shout at him, he somberly quotes Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek. He worries aloud that the bailouts represent a “crisis of American civilization.”
As part of the Gingrich Revolution in 1994, Sanford pledged to serve just three terms. Naturally, Sanford compiled a strikingly different record from many of his fellow revolutionaries. He regularly found himself grouped with Ron Paul and a few other staunch conservatives like Steve Largent and Tom Coburn on the losing end of lopsided votes. “I remember the leadership would come and say, ‘This stuff is okay during the campaign, but we have to govern,’ and I thought it was govern toward a specific end, not just govern to govern,” Sanford recalls.
Though he had endorsed John McCain in 2000, Sanford stayed out of the Republican contest in 2008. Two days before the primary, Sen. Lindsey Graham was dispatched to Sanford’s office with a plea and an offer. Graham told Sanford that an endorsement from the popular governor could put McCain over the top in the key primary state. In return, he promised a spot on McCain’s veep shortlist. Sanford responded cooly, “I don’t need your help getting on the shortlist” and declined.
Sanford’s conservative credentials compare favorably to anyone else mentioned as a 2012 presidential contender. He calls the public-education system “a Soviet-style monopoly.” He promoted school choice through tax rebates to avoid the appearance of government control. He passed a “Castle doctrine” bill that was supported by the NRA. He favors a law-and-order approach to immigration, but opposed REAL ID on civil liberties grounds. Though he avoids showy displays of piety, he is reliably pro-life.
But the governor edges closer to pure libertarianism at times. He rolls his eyes at the Columbia sheriff’s department’s zeal in investigating Michael Phelps’s recreational pot use. And he criticizes Alan Greenspan’s management of the “opaque” Federal Reserve. “If you take human nature out of a Fed, it might work,” he explains. “But you can’t. You can have these wise men. But who wants to turn off the spigot at a party that’s rolling?“
He also deviates from the Republican line on foreign policy. In Congress, he opposed Clinton’s intervention in Kosovo. And he was one of only two Republicans to vote against the 1998 resolution to make regime change in Iraq the official policy of the United States. He says that it was a “protest vote” in which he tried to reassert the legislature’s war-declaring powers. When asked about the invasion of Iraq, he extends his critique beyond the constitutional niceties. “I don’t believe in preemptive war,” he says flatly. “For us to hold the moral high ground in the world, our default position must be defensive.”
The governing style of movie stars, whether they call their opponents “girly men” or don flight suits for the cameras, led to the present crisis. Official Washington has no memory, demands largesse, and prizes optimism as its cardinal virtue. But Sanford is haunted by the past, tight with a checkbook, and worried about future. If he has any chance, it’s because he sounds a lot like the rest of us.”