April 25, 2005
A CAROLINA KID
Republican governor Mark Sanford makes an impression
JOHN J. MILLER
‘Mark Sanford: Wrong on Social Security, wrong for South Carolina.” This slogan blared into living rooms all over the Palmetto State in 2002, when Sanford was running for governor against Jim Hodges, the incumbent Democrat. It was Sanford’s reward for daring to reform Social Security as a Republican congressman in the 1990s. Hodges figured that a negative campaign would boost his reelection chances, especially if he could shine a bright light on Sanford’s support for letting workers invest a portion of their payroll taxes through personal accounts — or, as Hodges put it, forcing seniors to “bet their retirement fund on corporate disasters like WorldCom and Enron.”
It didn’t work. Voters decided that Sanford was in fact right for South Carolina, and he won by six points. Since then, he has gone on to become one of the best new governors in the country, ranking near the top of the Cato Institute’s latest fiscal-policy report card and putting himself in position for an easy reelection next year. Conservatives have praised his efforts to slash taxes and limit the growth of government. A college student in Maryland has even launched a “Draft Sanford for President 2008” website.
Call it a Social Security survivor’s benefit. “I learned that this doesn’t have to be the third rail of American politics,” says Sanford.
The governor, now 44, decided to enter politics in 1991, after listening to Jim Davidson of the National Taxpayers Union talk about government finances at Renaissance Weekend, the annual confab made famous by regular attendees Bill and Hillary Clinton. Sanford is a fitness buff — he swims daily, likes to windsurf, and usually sports a dark tan from spending so many hours in the sun. He grew irritated as he learned about Washington’s budgetary unfitness. “Davidson scared the bejesus out of me,” he says.
Two years later, Sanford was running for Congress from a coastal district that included Myrtle Beach. “We had a lot of retirees living there,” he says. Yet he wasn’t afraid to stand outside Wal-Mart stores and stump for tax cuts, spending restraint, school choice — and Social Security reform. Sanford grabbed the GOP nomination and was elected to Congress in the class of 1994.
In Washington, he earned a reputation as a penny pincher, both for his voting record and his personal behavior. During his six years on Capitol Hill, he slept on a futon in his office, even though he’s a millionaire who easily could have afforded a small apartment. To cut down on paper costs, his staff used the letterhead of Rep. Andrea Seastrand, a California Republican who was defeated for reelection in 1996. “We found reams and reams of her stationery sitting in the hallway and decided to put it in our fax machine,” says Scott English, a longtime Sanford aide. “I think we finally ran out in December 2000.” Sanford’s office ultimately returned more than $1.2 million in unused funds.
That’s the kind of story that makes constituents stand up and cheer. Then there are the anecdotes that make them cringe, like the one about Sanford’s going to the movies with a couple of his fellow congressmen. He offered to buy them drinks at the concession stand — and came back to their seats with a big cup of Coke and three straws.
This frugality extended to the floor of the House, where Sanford opposed public-works projects in his own district and cast a series of votes that practically begged the other party to make attack ads out of them. Sanford voted against a bill to preserve Underground Railroad sites (he hates blacks!), against the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (he hates women!), against a breast-cancer stamp (he hates women with breast cancer!). But Sanford was an equal-opportunity denier: He was the only Republican to oppose renaming Washington National Airport in honor of Ronald Reagan. “It already had a name,” he says. In each case, Sanford was concerned about unnecessary spending.
His main focus, however, was Social Security. Sanford began offering reform ideas — beta versions of what President Bush advocates now — shortly after his 1995 swearing-in ceremony. His first bill was his most ambitious one. It would have allowed workers to redirect a chunk of their payroll taxes into private accounts. Sanford has described it as “136 pages that would put you to sleep at night” — and, indeed, it went nowhere in Congress. Yet his colleagues increasingly recognized him as a leader on an emerging issue. In 1998, he gave the GOP response to Clinton’s weekly radio address; he talked about Social Security; Clinton had talked about Ireland. Sanford also debated Social Security at a national “town hall” meeting with Al Gore (who promised that the Clinton administration would tackle Social Security just as soon as that year’s elections were over).
Sanford’s commitment to the issue was so deep that he agreed to join a congressional delegation visiting Japan, Australia, and New Zealand in 1999. He had previously criticized his colleagues for wasting taxpayer money on such junkets, but in this case his motives were pure: He wanted to make the case for Social Security reform in front of a buttonholed Denny Hastert. “It’s face time,” he explained to the Post and Courier of Charleston. “I’m going to be on the same plane with him for nine days.” The next year, he pushed the idea of a “personal lockbox” that would return the Social Security surplus to workers in the form of cash they could commit to private accounts. Congress didn’t pass it, of course, but Sanford never has believed his efforts were wasted. “I spent a lot of time out there trying to advance public opinion,” he said in 2002. “I shifted the debate.”
After six years in Congress, Sanford honored a term-limits pledge and stepped down. He indicated that he had no plans to run for another office, and he even joined the Air Force Reserve as a logistics officer who coordinated medical crews aboard C-17s. (He still belongs, and may be called up — which would present an interesting problem.) “It was an odd midlife crisis,” he says. “We’ve disconnected the rights of being Americans with the responsibilities. I wanted to have some juice in the deal, and to set an example for my boys.” (Sanford and his wife have four sons.)
It wasn’t long before Sanford set his sights on the governorship. As a candidate, Sanford proposed abolishing the state’s income tax over the course of 18 years. As governor he wasn’t able to move this idea through the statehouse, even with Republicans in control of both chambers. Instead, he found himself issuing 106 budget vetoes in an effort to reduce spending — but legislators overrode 105 of them. Sanford protested their taste for pork by carrying a pair of piglets into the capitol building. His prickly relations with lawmakers continue this year, as he keeps on pushing for tax cuts that South Carolina’s senatorial grandees don’t want to give him.
Sanford hasn’t jumped into the current fray over Social Security. “I’m so busy as governor, I can barely breathe,” he says. But he does think the time is right for reform. “When I first ran for Congress, people didn’t perceive a problem,” he says. “They do now. You don’t have to explain it to them.” He insists that conservatives shouldn’t be afraid of presenting their solutions to groups of senior citizens. “We found that although the national AARP was against us, local chapters were much more receptive,” he says. “The ultimate constituency for grandparents is their grandkids. They’re interested in learning about how a personalized system would work for their grandchildren.” And there’s one thing that always had his listeners nodding: “Everybody agrees that the riskiest place you can keep your money is in Washington. That’s why I think the president is really on to something when he talks about an ‘ownership society.’ That message can work.”
Sanford certainly knows how to make a message work and turn it into a political victory. Before he was elected to Congress in 1994, he had to win a seven-way Republican primary. He had to do the same thing eight years later, taking the GOP gubernatorial nomination in a race that featured seven candidates. If seven Republicans run for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, some media wag is bound to label them “the seven dwarves.” Conservatives hoping to find someone not so dwarfish may want to check out that “Draft Sanford” website.