November 02, 2006


A good lesson for the taking...

From: The Wall Street Journal

The Sanford Model

October 30, 2006; Page A13

Just when you thought that there weren't any small-government conservatives left in the Republican Party, along comes South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, who may be the only politician in America this year under assault for governing as a fiscal tightwad. What's really unusual about Mr. Sanford's bid for re-election is that some of his most formidable adversaries are the old bull politicians in his own party.

The state's Republican Senate Finance Committee chairman Verne Smith, for example, has just cut a campaign ad for Tommy Moore, the Democrat running against the governor. The ad slams Mr. Sanford for his attempts to squeeze too much grease from the state budget. Mr. Smith has evidently never forgiven him for dramatizing the legislature's overspending by holding a press conference inside the state Capitol in Columbia with two squealing pigs: one named "Pork" and the other "Barrel."

"Hey, it worked," Mr. Sanford says unapologetically of this stunt, which attracted nationwide attention. The legislature went back and cut $16 million in earmarks. He has vetoed hundreds of spending bills, including the entire budget in 2004 and 2006 - although almost all of these vetoes were overridden by - who else? - the state Republican House and Senate. "If I weren't fighting the legislature on overspending, I wouldn't be doing my job," he says about this intraparty squabbling. Then he adds: "Frankly, I wish there were more of this budget strife in Washington." Words for George W. Bush to live by.

Despite the turmoil Mr. Sanford has stirred up during the past four years, he's racked up some pretty impressive accomplishments. Though his effort to phase out the state income tax was killed in the senate, he chopped the personal income tax rate on small businesses, to 5% from 7%, for the first time in South Carolina history. He took a state that was labeled a "judicial hell hole" and passed reforms, despised by trial lawyers, that will penalize frivolous lawsuits. He even cut the average wait time to get a driver's license renewal to 15 minutes from over an hour.

Mr. Sanford's real passion is school reform - which is urgently needed in a state that ranks 48th, 49th, or 50th in almost all measures of student performance. He openly ridicules the "failed monopoly" school system and for this the left has accused him of being virulently anti-public education (although school spending rose 20% in his first term). He also persuaded the legislature to approve charter schools and a private school tax credit bill - and might have gotten more done if it weren't for his prickly personality.

This is the lingering complaint about Mr. Sanford (which he readily concedes): He "doesn't play in the sandbox well with others." Even some of the governor's first-term supporters, who at first liked the idea that this former three-term congressman would shake up the stuffy political establishment in Columbia, have come to regard Mr. Sanford as too abrasive and self-righteous.

Just last week South Carolina's largest newspaper, The State - which endorsed him four years ago - published a scathing denunciation charging among other things that the governor "doesn't want government to be more effective as much as he wants it to be cheaper," and that his first term has been all about "tax cuts and privatizing everything he could - even the schools." The fiercest indictment: "He had run as a conservative . . . but [is] as close to an ideologically pure libertarian as you can get." Egads!

But with qualifications like his, it is no wonder that a number of leading conservatives across the country, disgusted with GOP gorging on pork and deficit spending, are looking at Mr. Sanford as a potentially attractive new entrant into the 2008 presidential race.

First, however, there is the little matter of re-election. Opponent Tommy Moore - a man who boasts that he has spent half his life (28 years) in the state legislature - is predictably attacking the governor for slashing vital services like education. Mr. Sanford is certainly vulnerable to the Democratic tide that could oust many GOP incumbents next week, but he remains admired by most voters. The latest Clemson University poll has him leading the race 58% to 31%.

Those good numbers may seem surprising, given the budget wars in Columbia and the drubbing he has taken from the media for being so aggravatingly uncompromising. But Mr. Sanford has a gift for turning liberal complaints against him into virtues with voters. After Time magazine rated him one of the three worst governors in America, Mr. Sanford openly scoffed. "All the top grades went to the tax and spenders," he laughs. "Believe me, I'm never going to win that kind of beauty contest, nor do I want to." He points out that in the same issue Time rated Ted Kennedy one of the top 10 senators in America. In South Carolina, that's enough said.

Mr. Sanford is still criticized to this day for the piggies stunt - the House speaker claimed that he "defiled" the state capital - but the governor says the voters have a different attitude. Breaking into a pronounced Southern drawl he says: "They tell me: 'You go bring some more pigs up there, governor. We're tired of the way they're spending our money.'"

That's the way many conservative Americans feel about Washington these days - and why Republicans may fare so poorly next Tuesday. Political commentators such as the Washington Post's David Broder may write glowingly about how California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has discovered the new formula for GOP governance: Toss aside ideology and sprint to the 50-yardline. But the Sanford model - holding firm on limited government principles - is a far more compelling lesson for how Republicans can recapture the good graces of their conservative voting base.

Mr. Moore is a member of The Wall Street Journal editorial board.

Copyright 2006 - The Wall Street Journal

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