Sanford Rising?

Tall, lean and soft-spoken, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford comes across as a 21st Century version of a frontier sheriff telling the bad guys to “just hold it right there.”  In his CPAC speech a week ago, he invoked the Alamo, Pearl Harbor and 1776 as moments in American history comparable to today.

He told the crowd of over 8,000 conservative activists that this was a “gut check moment” for America.  And facing the onslaught of federal mandates for state spending in the Obama “stimulus” bill, Gov. Sanford is among the first governors to say “whoa.”

A few months ago, I was the guest speaker at a Freedom Alliance Foundation dinner given by my old friend Oliver North.  Over dinner, before my speech, Ollie and I spoke of the many good conservatives who could lead the Republicans out of the wilderness and who might be good presidential candidates in 2012.  After I rattled off about a dozen names, Ollie told me that I needed to get to know Mark Sanford.

Ollie recited a long list of Sanford’s attributes, but what got my attention was — in the midst of talking about things military — his statement that Sanford was “one of us,” the highest compliment Ollie gives to anyone.  Ollie is a tough grader: if you deserve a “D”, you don’t get a “B+.” Anyone who Ollie gives an “A,” as he did Sanford, was someone I had to talk with.  And I did earlier this week.

Sanford was the obvious target of a provision in the “stimulus” package added by Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) that enables state legislatures to overturn a governor’s decision to reject the “stimulus” funds.  Why would a governor reject any of it?  Because some of the funds — such as increased unemployment benefits — have to be funded by the states after the “stimulus” money runs out, and the future liabilities are both too large and create conflicts in state funding priorities.  

Sanford, along with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and several others, are looking at how they should reject some or all of the funds and whether the Clyburn provision is even constitutional.  I asked Sanford what he planned to do.

He said, “We’re still deliberating. And frankly doing what Congress should have done. Obama talked about a five day window of transparency and having bills up on the internet so people could look at them. Didn’t happen in this case. [The bill came out] on Thursday night, and in this case some people were voting on Friday. Governors across the country are going through it with a fairly fine tooth comb and going through the deliberative process that frankly should have been gone through at the congressional level. We’re still doing that and we’ll make a determination in the next couple weeks where we’ll be.”

Sanford said he’d probably take some parts of the “stimulus” funds and reject others.

Sanford — citing chapter and verse on economic theory, labor law and practical politics — said that the Obama administration needed to stop micro-managing the economy in order to restore economic stability.  

“It is a leftist policy that says we can micro-manage,” he said. “This is a lot bigger question than the U.S. economy.  This is a global economy question now. The global economy is $67 trillion in size. So you talk about saying we’ll throw in another, call it $670 billion or call it a trillion dollars, so that’s like a percent and a half or something. When is the last time a percent and a half made a difference in anything? In other words, if you left a percent and a half to the waitress, would that make a difference? Yea, it’d make a difference, probably not positively.”

The governor added, “We’ve gotten ourselves into is this ‘boy crying wolf’ thing where if you put between $6 and $7 trillion worth of stimulus into the economy between bailout, Federal Reserve activity, Treasury Department activity, everything else over the last year, and now they are saying, ‘just trust me with another $1 trillion.’ So I’d say in terms of scale we need to take a breath, step back, quit pretending that the Treasury the Fed or whoever else can micro-manage a global economy that’s $67 trillion in size and six and a half billion folks in human scale.

“And so what I’d say is you need to send very clear and consistent messages, one of which is the truth.”

Sanford also objects to what he calls our devolution into a “savior-based economy,” endowing people such as Treasury Secretary Geithner with superpowers on the economic crisis that entitles them to require us to overlook their own real problems.  Sanford said Geithner would have been “slammed” for those problems.  

“That’s the opposite of what our country’s been about. Our country’s always been about nation of laws, not of men. No one person was indispensable and we didn’t look for saviors,” Sanford said.

Sanford objects to the continued enlargement of government in every aspect of our lives. The economic intervention is only the latest evolution.  “It is symptomatic of a larger problem. With every crisis of late it’s been another excuse for the federal government to double down and to grow its level of control and influence or impact on people’s lives,” he told me.

I asked the governor where he thought conservatism was now, and where it should go in the next couple of years.  

He said, “I would say that, oddly enough, in some ways there is never been a time to be more hopeful as conservatives because in all the life there’s reaction and counter-reaction. The Bible says, be hot, be cold but don’t be lukewarm. I think some conservatives are sort of drifting through lukewarm.  They had a president that did some things they didn’t like so much but ‘hey it’s on our side so its better than the alternative.’

“Everybody was sort of in a mushy state of either not wanting to offend anybody for legitimate reasons or being relatively content based on where the economy was headed or where their 401K was headed. All those things have been stripped away now. You have a president that in declarative terms wants to go the opposite way. You have an economy that is very much reminding people of the consequences of political decision making.

“When times are good, people say, ‘you know, politics just really doesn’t matter that much,’ and I always say, ‘You been to a third world country lately?’ It positively does matter. We forget that when times are good. I think the people are going to be reminded of that based on the degree of degradation I think they’re going to see in the economy. And so what all that means is, look at the cycle of life: birth, death, spring, fall, summer. We’re going through a rough time right now, but the good thing — particularly in this time of year — is spring always follows winter.”

Ollie North was right:  Mark Sanford is a smart, tough and articulate conservative.  He really is one of us.