McCain Veepstakes: Old School Sanford

“Sanford’s heart is in the right place, but he sure is tough to deal with. We have to argue with him about everything!”

As my press colleagues, Jamie Coomarasamy and Mike Innes of the BBC, and I made our way through polling places in Columbia on the day of South Carolina primary in January, we heard this repeatedly from area Republican activists. They were talking about the Palmetto State’s two-term Gov. Mark Sanford — then, as now, mentioned as a vice presidential prospect on the impending John McCain ticket. (In 2000, then-Rep. Sanford strongly endorsed the Arizonan for President in his contest with George W. Bush; in this year’s primary, which was eventually won by McCain, Gov. Sanford remained neutral.)

When I brought up this criticism to Sanford in a recent interview, the governor shot back: “[Y]ou’ve got to dig into the sources on those fronts, to say, ‘indeed, are they really conservative.’ Because the bottom line in South Carolina is we absolutely have Republican control, but we do not have a conservative working majority in our body politic. And again, I’ve said this straight to his face, I’m not saying anything out of turn — [State Sen] Hugh Leatherman is the head of [the Senate Finance Committee], is a guy who for 25 years of his life is a Democrat, he sees the time changing, he shifts to the Republican party, but it is indeed in name only. I guess some folks call folks like that ‘rinos’ [Republicans In Name Only], I don’t know what you call them, but the bottom line is a lot of folks with whom we’ve indeed had troubles have not been pushing conservative ideology.”

He specifically singled out Warren Tompkins, top political operative for the late Republican Gov. Carroll Campbell. Tompkins, according to Sanford, “long ago earned his stripes as a Republican. But Warren Tompkins these days makes his money as a lobbyist with issues before the state general assembly. We won’t play ball, in other words, whether you’re a lobbyist from the right or a lobbyist from the left. We try and play with the state down the middle, which is not our tribe against your tribe; it’s the bigger tribe of, ‘do you believe in limited government?’”

Sanford believes that “there are all sorts of people who talk the talk when it comes to ‘I want to lessen the tax and spending,’ but when push comes to shove, they’re not voting that way. And that is the reason that there’s such a profound frustration at the ground level with a lot of folks in Washington, and it’s indeed the reason why there’s some frustration — if you talk not to the representatives tied to the body politic in Columbia, but the people out in the field, they’ve been quite happy [with his record].”

Not coincidentally, he added, “[W]e’ve got the highest re-elect numbers of anybody — I think I’m only the third two-term governor in the state in history.”

A graduate of Furman (S.C.) University and holder of an M.B.A. from the University of Virginia, Sanford made a fortune as a real estate investor. In his first-ever race for office, he won a U.S. House seat in 1994 after emerging on top in a crowded primary and run-off against several more established Republicans. As the Almanac of American Politics noted, “In the House, Sanford voted more often than almost any member [against] spending increases. He was one of the few members voting against measures passed by nearly unanimous votes, and he opposed what he considered pork barrel spending, including projects in South Carolina.” True to his promise of serving three terms only, Sanford not only left Congress in 2000 but wrote a book defending the concept of term limits. In ’02, after a stint in business and joining the Air Force Reserve, Sanford returned to politics, defeated two statewide elected officials in the GOP primary, and unseated Democratic Gov. James Hodges with 53% of the vote.

National Review dubbed the South Carolinian “one of the best new governors in the country” and the CATO Institute hailed Sanford for his fiscal record. Riding a horse and buggy to the State Capitol to underscore his point that government in Columbia was “stuck in 1895,” Sanford issued 106 budget vetoes in ’04 and 163 vetoes in ’05. At one point, he vetoed the entire budget in ’05 and legislators, faced with the prospect of closing down state government, overrode the veto.

But voters appeared to approve of their governor and he won again by an even larger margin.

“We pulled off the first cut to the marginal income tax rate in South Carolina’s history.” Sanford recalled to us, “We pulled off the largest aggregate tax cut in South Carolina’s history. We pulled off a swap, if you will, on property tax. I believe in, wherever possible, moving toward consumption and rewarding investment, and so we pulled off a swap that basically shielded somebody from some of their tax on property tax in place for sales tax.”

But, he quickly added, “what’s difficult for Republicans to come together [on], whether in Washington or in Columbia, South Carolina, is on spending. And that’s where we’ve had more than a few of our disagreements.” With his obvious passion for cutting taxes, spending, and the size of government (“Different things get us fired up — what gets me fired up is government spending!”), Sanford has been accused as both congressman and governor of being less than passionate on cultural issues.

“It doesn’t mean that I don’t have strong opinions on abortion,” Sanford maintained, “You look at my votes, I think I had 100% scorecard in all those different things during my time in Congress and in the governorship. But it doesn’t wake me up in the morning. That is the position that I hold as a conservative, but I would stand up and say ‘look, what really gets me fired up is these fiscal issues. And people have come to understand that as they’ve gotten to know me. And in South Carolina, initially, it caused some great alarm; that wasn’t what got me up in the morning, which was, I think, telling the truth.”

Any press discussion with Sanford these days inevitably begins and ends with the talk of him as a running mate with another iconoclastic Republican. Would he do it?

“I would say this whole VP thing is flattering, kind, nice, but I think sort of ahead of its time,” he said in response to a question from colleague Jim Seminara, “I’m sort of old-school. I think you want to take it — it’s one of those things you want to worry about when it gets there. I’m busy with the job at hand, busy with the four boys at home, I think it would be, at minimum, premature, and at worst suggesting a whole lot of hubris if you start saying ‘well these are conditions under which I would have a conversation with somebody on that front.’”

“I think the reality is if anybody gets a call, they would take it. I think if they say ‘I wouldn’t take the call,’ I don’t think they’re telling the truth. I would figure that out when I got there. If I was to get there. Which I think is a low-probability kind of thing. As to the second point — what I would do — again, what I would do is certainly irrelevant. That particular role is a support role. I think the guy at the top is the guy who’s going to be deciding those kinds of things, and people who would suggest otherwise probably haven’t really read their history books on the VP role. I would say that it would be my hope that — he is the nominee. And folks that look at the economy around him, would certainly look at the importance of capital formation and investment.”