mark’s mind


FITSNews – January 14, 2008 – It goes without saying that every one of us – to some extent – is a walking contradiction. No one can be 100% consistent, 100% of the time, and it’s safe to say that immersing yourself in the political process dramatically lowers both percentages.

And so it is with Mark Sanford, South Carolina’s maverick (recalcitrant?), unconventional (oddball?), non-political (political animal?), easy-going (carefully-scripted?) second-term governor.

In fact, of all the questions we’re asked about South Carolina politics here at FITSNews, the one that pops up most often is: “What’s up with Mark Sanford?”

Well, here goes …

Short answer? We don’t have a clue.

Sure, our founding editor Sic Willie worked alongside the governor for four years, but he’ll be the first to tell you he hasn’t the foggiest of notions as to what goes on inside that gubernatorial noggin.

It’s a refrain echoed by dozens of Sanford confidants, former employees and friends, to say nothing of the numerous political enemies the governor has made over his six years in Columbia.

Let’s start with the obvious dichotomies …

– Mark Sanford is extraordinarily intelligent … yet he is frequently aloof and naive.

– Mark Sanford is immensely popular … yet he has been largely unable to translate that popularity into forward motion for his agenda.

– Mark Sanford is uncompromising … yet he frequently compromises to a fault on big-ticket items.

– Mark Sanford isn’t concerned with being popular … yet he maintains a codependent streak a mile wide.

– Mark Sanford is a friendly, “aw, shucks” kind of a guy … yet he’s been known to run his office with an iron, micro-managerial fist.

– Mark Sanford is a bold, decisive leader … yet he’s frequently paralyzed by indecision.

– Mark Sanford isn’t a politician … yet he’s one of the most/least accomplished politicians in the state.

There are kernels of truth to every one of these yins and yangs, just as there are in the psyche of any over-analyzed individual.

It’s almost like watching one of those old Mounds-Almond Joy commercials, namely, “sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don’t.”

Which leads us to another dichotomy …

– Mark Sanford is a nut … yet he can be one of the most eminently-logical people you’ll ever meet.

On the issues – particularly his twin passions of reducing spending and streamlining government – Sanford is far less mercurial. In fact, were his legacy to be written today, it would likely say something about how he “succeeded in peeling back the scab on a bloated and inefficient state government, exposing the waste, duplication and corruption of a flawed and outdated system rooted in the patterns and prejudices of a bygone era.”

Has he “changed the tone in Columbia?” Absolutely.

Yet in most cases those victories have been moral, not meaningful.

His income tax cuts and grandiose government restructuring plans have gone nowhere, his education reforms have been largely abandoned, his executive budgets might as well have been used as legislative doorstops, and his relations with the General Assembly are probably worse than any governor … in any state … maybe ever.

In fairness to Sanford, though, he isn’t really dealing with the “Republican” government everyone thinks he is. Far from it, in fact.

People like to view Sanford’s chronic “inability to get along” with his GOP peers within the context of a “he said, she said” inter-party spat, but as any thoughtful review of the S.C. General Assembly’s performance makes clear, South Carolina isn’t under Republican control. In fact, it’s further under the thumb of the Democrats than it’s ever been before.

Then there’s the simple “power arithmetic” of Sanford’s office, which was Constitutionally-neutered back in 1895 by post-Reconstruction Democrats fearful of an African-American ever occupying its marble and mahogany trappings.

But Sanford was elected with a clear mandate in 2002 … and then reelected with an even larger one in 2006. His approval ratings among the general public (and particularly GOP primary voters) remain positively stratospheric to this day.

So what gives?

Without putting too fine a point on it, our opinion is that Sanford’s “trigger finger” simply hasn’t been itchy enough. Or decisive enough.

In 2004, after it was clear that the “Republican Majority” he was dealing with in the legislature was slightly to the left of the Sendero Luminoso, Sanford missed a golden opportunity to begin forging a more conservative majority when he agreed to endorse dozens of “borderline” Republicans. On top of that, he by-and-large stayed out of races involving already-hardened enemies within the GOP.

In 2006, with his own reelection to worry about, Sanford was equally disengaged, and with a few exceptions he continued to be extremely reluctant to leverage his popularity in several 2007 special elections.

For his trouble, Sanford’s legislative antagonists have gone ahead and branded him with the tag of “running against the General Assembly” anyway, with their big government media apologists cheering them on.

Which brings us to 2008, the governor’s last chance to exert his influence on the makeup of a legislative branch that has stifled his reforms (and the taxpayers’ best interests) at every turn.

Will Sanford finally drop the proverbial hammer? Or will he continue to tip-toe around the obvious, forcing voters to buy a cereal box decoder ring in order to figure out who he supports and opposes in the upcoming elections?

Who knows … although it’s hard to imagine a better set of circumstances for Sanford to leverage his substantial political (and actual) capital.

Education in this state remains an unmitigated disaster, as does health care, in spite of the fact that state spending has been literally off the charts on both. Scandals plague his antagonists, making an ordinarily dull argument about the structure of government potentially much sexier.

That’s why for our part, we’re going to continue encouraging the governor to be as aggressive as possible, operating under the assumption that if you’re going to get hit with the tag of “running against the legislature” anyway, you might as well get something out of it – particularly in the districts where your money or your endorsement could make the difference between a real Republican and a status quo Republicrat occupying a seat.

In fact, if the governor were willing to “dial it up to 5” in certain districts, there’s a good chance his executive budgets might be used for something other than winter kindling come 2009, not to mention the ink in his veto pen assuming some legitimate potency.

But when it comes to the “Mind of Mark,” sadly we’re as lost as the next political observer, despite certain folks’ claims that we still speak for his office.

As much as we might wish that were the case from time to time, the fact is that our governor – and your governor – largely remains a “riddle wrapped in mystery inside an enigma.”

Which, in a nutshell, is the definitive psychoanalysis of Mark Sanford.

Decoder rings, anybody?