Conservatism needs an heir and champion. In 1976, while Ronald Reagan narrowly lost the Republican nomination to President Gerald Ford, his almost-successful campaign propelled him to “candidate-in-waiting” for the 1980 election. In the interim, conservative Reagan assumed the mantle of Republican leader, and essentially served as the American equivalent of a parliamentary shadow government.
While the 2008 election is barely a week past, neither conservatives nor Republicans have a candidate-in-waiting for 2012. John McCain certainly won’t run again, and anyone closely affiliated with the unpopular Bush Administration will not garner serious consideration. Conservatism is in need of a movement conservative to take the mantle, effectively deliver the conservative message, and lead the party into the 2012 election.
Fortunately, we have a deep bench. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, and a whole host of solidly conservative members of Congress are possibilities (intriguingly, columnist Robert Novak floated a familiar name recently: Newt Gingrich). The best choice: South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, the newly minted leader of the Republican Governor’s Association.
Sanford, with an MBA from UVA's Darden School of Business, earned his economic bonafides working on Wall Street in the 1980s before returning to South Carolina to earn his wealth as a private real estate developer. Rising from complete obscurity to win a Congressional seat in 1994, he later defied the party establishment to win the 2002 Republican gubernatorial primary, and handily defeated the incumbent Democrat governor. In 2006, a terrible year for national Republicans, he won reelection by a comfortable margin.
In Congress, Sanford received high marks for his efforts to create economic opportunity and look out for the taxpayer. For his efforts to lower taxes and limit government, Citizens Against Government Waste ranked him as the #1 taxpayer protector in Congress. He received similar well-deserved praise from other taxpayer groups.
Governor Sanford is a reformer — and an innovator. His Executive Budget, which lays out his philosophical beliefs and legislative agenda for the coming year, is a “what’s what” of thoughtful and innovative policy considerations. The budget begins with zero-based budgeting, which is a process in which every government program is scrutinized, and only those worthwhile are “purchased” for the coming fiscal year. After limiting government spending growth to population growth plus inflation growth, all excess programs not high enough on the priority list are eliminated.
But Sanford’s fresh ideas do not stop with an innovative government spending plan. His ideas, advocating market-based entitlement reform; implementing statutory spending limits; restructuring an inefficient form of government; lessening the government’s grip on education; pushing for an optional flat income tax; and reining in unfunded government liabilities, are all on the cutting edge of state government innovation.
Governor Sanford’s policy proposals evidence an understanding that Republicans must actually offer legitimate solutions to many of the issues faced by our country. His loudest clarion call has been for spending restraint — and the current fiscal crisis, founded upon imprudent spending choices, (unfortunately) validates those warnings. Subsequently, the governor opposed the financial bailout, and he recently exhibited tough political courage by testifying in the House Ways and Means Committee against a subsequent bailout for the states — the only governor to do so — by emphatically arguing that the funds for these state bailouts come from the taxpayers in fiscally-prudent states elsewhere.
While Sanford’s agenda has met some resistance, mostly from his own party, he can point to a number of successes. Two major agenda items, comprehensive tort reform and a marginal income tax cut, passed for the first time in state history. He pushed for, and won, optional health savings accounts for all state employees, and a free-market solution to a potential disaster with hurricane insurance (in contrast to Florida, where the taxpayers are on the hook). Sanford presses on with his goal to improve the soil conditions to attract jobs and capital investment — which in turn improves the lives of real citizens.
Sanford is wonkish, often bringing charts and graphs to press conferences and speeches. However, the wonkishness is strangely endearing, and his message is clearly resonating with voters in South Carolina and with conservatives across the country, among whom he retains rock-star status. Instead of letting members of his own party frustrate his push for responsible conservative governance, he took the fight to the primaries, lending his political capital to like-minded Republicans running against incumbents in the primary. Progressively over the last 3 election cycles, South Carolinians have provided Sanford with increasing numbers of ideological allies. Beginning in January ‘09, the governor will have a significant block of “Sanfordites” to help enact an agenda of conservative reform in both the House and the Senate.
Idealistic and principled, Governor Sanford is a gut-level fiscal conservative with a strong grasp of the benefits of Reaganite, market-friendly principles and limited government. Six years in Congress and two terms as Governor have not tempered his fealty, or enthusiasm, for conservative principles. And I know this from firsthand experience, having served under him. Numerous times, I witnessed the Governor stand firm on his principles, political expediency be damned. And he is one of the few Republicans who hasn’t been hurt by the damaged Republican brand.
Sanford’s faith in South Carolinians—and Americans—is rightly stronger than his faith in bureaucrats in Columbia or Washington. In an interview with the Weekly Standard, Sanford said, “"Whatever government does, it ought to do well," and, "Whatever government doesn't have to do, it should let the private sector do." He earnestly believes that the American people, not the government, will ultimately provide real solutions to our problems. And he recognizes that a return from political exile must begin with ideas, with innovative policies.
By providing a constant stream of innovative ideas aimed at tackling numerous issues, Governor Sanford is one of the few leaders in the Republican Party with the conviction, determination, and ability to engineer a comeback.
And it’s a comeback we need.