TBT: Mark Sanford’s Ideology

Today’s #TBT mines the depths of my 2009 scribblings, during the “TPP 1.0” era of the blog.  Yesterday’s post about the “The State of the Right” got me thinking about how much the state of play has changed in the last decade, particularly since the Trump Ascendancy in 2015-2016.

One example of that change is former Congressman and South Carolina Mark Sanford.  Sanford was the first Republican I ever voted for in a general SC gubernatorial race, and I loved his fiscal conservative grandstanding (he once walked into the General Assembly carrying two piglets under his arms to oppose “pork barrel spending”; he allegedly barbecued the two oinkers later on).

He always took largely principled stands.  He refused to expand Medicare during the worst part of the Great Recession, knowing that once federal dollars were withdrawn, South Carolinians would pick up the tab.  He opposed the seatbelt law (you can now be pulled over specifically for not wearing a seatbelt in South Carolina, whereas before it was only ticketable if you were pulled over for some other infraction), arguing that adults can make their own decisions about their safety, and that traffic officers have enough to deal with already (it has to be difficult to spot through a window).

So, in my youthful naivete, I wrote a letter to my hometown paper, The Aiken Standard, showing my support for Mark Sanford.  He was under intense pressure to accept federal “stimulus” dollars, and when he relented, the opponents who argued he should take the money gleefully noted his inconsistency (a rule here:  the Left will never be satisfied).  Governor Sanford sent me a letter thanking me for the op-ed, which I still have somewhere on my bookshelf.

Then, less than a month or so later, Sanford was caught in a major sexual scandal (and I learned an important lesson about not overly-idealizing political figures).  After disappearing from the State, an aide told the press the governor was “hiking the Appalachian Trail” to clear his head.  A reporter with The State newspaper happened to see Sanford at the Atlanta airport at the time, and within days the whole sleazy story came out:  Governor Sanford had been in Argentina with his mistress (now wife), and his cloyingly sentimental love e-mails to her were blasted all over the news.

Sanford refused to step down as governor—a good call, as snake-in-the-grass, power-hungry, loafer-lightener Lieutenant Governor Andre Bauer would have taken over—and finished out his term.  Everyone was sure he was done with politics… until he ran for US Congress for SC-1, his old district during his tenure in the 1990s.

He won against incredible odds.  His opponent, Elizabeth Colbert-Busch (the sister of Comedy Central hack Stephen Colbert), received huge fundraising donations from Democrats all over the country, including from the national party.  Sanford—deprived of his wealthy ex-wife, Jenny Sanford—urged supporters to make homemade yard signs out of plywood, cardboard, or whatever they had around the house.

Outspent 4:1, Sanford won.  He successfully painted his opponent as a hollow stand-in for Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, and his grassroots, DIY campaigning worked.  Of course, as one of my former students put it, “Jesus could run as a Democrat in that district and lose.”

Sanford returned to Congress for a few terms, then lost in a primary battle against Trumpist Katie Arrington.  Sanford always had one foot firmly planted in the Never Trumper wing of the GOP, and Arrington gobbled up his support in the primary.  She would, unfortunately, end up temporarily wheelchair bound due to a bad car wreck, and lost a very tight race to her Democratic opponent in 2018, a loss that still stings.

That’s enough history lesson for today.  Here is 2009’s “Mark Sanford’s Ideology“:

There has been much discussion lately about Governor Mark Sanford’s resistance to accepting federal stimulus money.  In the face of enormous public and political pressure, the governor has accepted these funds but will exercise considerable authority in determining who gets it.  For the purposes of this letter, I am not interested in whether or not this was the right thing to do.

I am more concerned with how the governor’s opponents have characterized his decisions.  Sanford’s rivals have accused him of political posturing.  Ignoring the vehement protestation against the governor’s actions, I find this interpretation lacking.  While the cynic in me is willing to acknowledge that there might have been an element of posturing to Sanford’s resistance, it seems highly unlikely that this was his only, or even a major, motivator.

His month-long battle against the federal stimulus, however, is much more readily explained by taking a look at his ideology and his record both as governor and as a congressional representative.  Sanford is perhaps the most ideologically consistent politician in contemporary American politics.  Since entering the political arena in 1994, Sanford has been the quintessential Republican; at least, he has been what the quintessential Republican should be.  By this I mean Sanford has sustained an unwavering faith in free enterprise and the free market while also endorsing socially conservative measures.  He is not quite a libertarian, but he has the general ideological bent of Ron Paul when it comes to the economy without the gold standard baggage.

A cursory glance at a website like ontheissues.org demonstrates how consistent Sanford’s ideology is.  In fact, the only inconsistency in his voting over the past 15 years is on affirmative action in college admissions.  While in Congress in 1998, Sanford voted against ending preferential treatment by race in college admissions, but in 2002 he said that affirmative action was acceptable in state contracts but not in colleges.  A closer examination of his voting history in Congress might reveal a few more inconsistencies, but I would wager any additional irregularities would still be far less than the typical congressman.

Regardless, Sanford’s commitment to fiscal conservatism and government accountability is astounding.  Sanford has repeatedly supported term limits (for example, he imposed one on himself while a representative to Congress), a balanced budget, and lower taxes, as well as pushing for choices for citizens in education.  Therefore, if we view Sanford’s struggle against the federal stimulus through the lens of his voting record and his statements as a congressman and governor, it is clear that his position derives from his sincere belief in his ideals.

Whether or not the governor is right is another matter.  That is not the point I want to make.  Agree or disagree, Governor Sanford is not taking a stand for political attention.  He is taking a stand because he believes it is right.  And, after all, isn’t that the important thing?

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