The Right Man for 2008?

With the implosion of George Allen, movement conservatives no longer have a candidate in the presidential mix that looks and acts like one of them.  Even though the field contains several heavy hitters, such as John McCain and Rudy Giuliani, the GOP grassroots has no one that is a natural fit.

If a small but growing number of conservatives have their way, however, a candidate that could truly excite the base might enter the fray: my old boss and current South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford.

On paper, a Sanford candidacy seems Quixotic.  Entering the White House derby at this point would actually be late in the game, he’s little-known outside South Carolina and Washington, D.C., and his main foil the past four years has been the GOP-dominated legislature.  

But if Republican primary voters decide that the 2008 standard-bearer needs to bring the party back to its Reagan roots, Sanford could be the dark horse to watch.  The recently re-elected governor could capture conservatives’ imagination with his unrelenting adherence to core principles.  Unlike most GOP governors who either pushed their state parties to the left or simply acquiesced to tax or spending increases passed by legislatures of either party, Sanford has battled profligate Republicans at every turn.

When the state House overrode all but one of his 106 spending line-item vetoes in 2004, Gov. Sanford stormed the Capitol the next morning with a piglet under each arm.  Red-faced Republicans squealed, but voters loved the bold move.  Realizing they couldn’t be quite as wasteful as their counterparts, the Senate sustained seven of the vetoes — but still overrode 99.

Sanford has been rankling fellow Republicans long before arriving in Columbia.  As Congressman from 1995-2001, GOP leadership knew that he was beyond their control.  In 1999, he and then-Rep. Tom Coburn (R.-Okla.) used parliamentary procedures to save taxpayers a fortune.  The farm spending bill came to the floor with an “open rule”– meaning any germane amendments could be offered.  Reps. Sanford and Coburn together drafted 121 fat-trimming amendments, and after trudging through just a few dozen of them, House leadership pulled the entire bill.  It was only re-introduced after $1 billion had been carved out.

Though it was exciting to work for Sanford, it wasn’t lucrative.  His staff was consistently among the lowest-paid on Capitol Hill, and we were expected to pinch every penny in running the office.  But a hypocrite Sanford was not; he slept on a cot in his office — all six years.  Taxpayers were rewarded for his frugality.  Sanford returned well over $1 million of his office budget to the Treasury during his tenure.

Since becoming governor in 2003, Sanford has only gotten more tightfisted.  Compared to his one-term predecessor, total salaries in his first term were $7 million lower — just for the governor’s office, not statewide.  And even though Gov. Hodges wasn’t exactly a jetsetter, the Sanford administration’s travel budget nosedived 42%, saving taxpayers over $25 million.  In total, the running of South Carolina’s government from 2003-2006 cost $100 million less than the previous four years.

While his budget cuts have proven quite popular with a public fed up with pork barrel politics, Gov. Sanford doesn’t gear his actions to maximize popularity.  As governor, he vetoed earmarked funding for the Special Olympics, on the theory that government should not play favorites among non-profits.  On Capitol Hill, he was just one of three Congressmen to oppose taxpayer subsidies for a breast cancer stamp.  Looking past the feel-good image of the funding request, Sanford voted against it because most of the money raised was going to go to Post Office administration, with little dedicated to actual breast-cancer research.

South Carolina’s chief executive is also a practical problem solver.  When Wall Street was poised to lower the state’s perfect AAA bond rating — over concern for the $155 million budget deficit Hodges left as a parting gift — the MBA-educated governor traveled to New York.  He persuaded two of the three main bond-rating agencies to maintain South Carolina’s score, while the third only dropped it one notch, to AA+.

Sanford hasn’t even hinted that he’s interested in running for 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., but that hasn’t stopped activists and contributors from prodding him.  Should he run, he would face very long odds.  Then again, long odds are all he’s ever known.  In a seven-way 2002 primary, he beat three statewide-elected officials and then cruised to a fairly easy victory over incumbent Democratic Gov. Jim Hodges.  Going back even further, he emerged from complete obscurity to top a six-way Congressional primary in 1994.

In spite of open opposition from some in the Republican establishment, Sanford won handily, 55-45 — the largest margin for any South Carolina gubernatorial or Senate candidate in 16 years.  To celebrate defying the GOP old guard and winning, Sanford is about to fight fellow Republicans — again — for more tax cuts.  

That this is par for his course is exactly why conservatives, from inside the beltway and out, have been pleading with Sanford to think of the White House — and why his message could resonate with voters.