Heard in the Echo Chamber - Missing (the) Mark
FITS has never made a secret of our support for South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford. Fighting for meaningful change against a recalcitrant status quo is a noble thing, and for the better part of the last three-and-a-half years our maverick, unpredictable governor has done just that.
That's why the last several months of the Sanford administration have been so disappointing.
While no one can argue that the governor hasn't been steadfast in his fiscal conservatism and valiant in his defense of the taxpayer, the gradual sacrifice of his core agenda items on the rotating altars of populism, practicality and politics has led some to question his true commitment to the ideals he campaigned so passionately in support of just four years ago.
With token primary opposition and a weak slate of Democratic candidates the only things standing between him and reelection, the self-styled "Happy Warrior" should be standing firm and resolute on principle and pressing the need for change to the legions of disaffected voters who are demanding it.
Yet instead of flexing his political muscle in a uniquely well-suited electoral climate, Sanford is once again failing to take the fight to the enemy, choosing instead to show acquiescence over strength, deal-making over decisiveness, in short, following over leading.
THE MYTH OF NON-COMPROMISE
While it is true that the governor does not work well with the General Assembly, legislators have brilliantly exploited Sanford's pre-existing maverick reputation, penchant for gimmickry and occasional reversion to hard-line tactics to successfully paint him as the one who refuses to compromise.
In fact, the opposite is true.
During his first two years in office, Sanford cut his proposed income tax reduction plan by more than two-thirds, dramatically scaled back his school choice initiative and ditched more than half of his aggressive restructuring agenda.
Rather than insist on complete elimination of the income tax, Sanford offered a modest 40% reduction over four years - a tax cut he wanted so badly he was willing to raise the cigarette tax in order to get it. Instead of giving school vouchers to everyone, Sanford agreed to tax credits for failing and below average schools only. And instead of appointing eight constitutional officers, Sanford trimmed that number to three - and post-dated those reforms to take place in 2011 when his presumed second term would be at an end.
Even Sanford's budget vetoes (never totalling much more than $100 million out of budgets ranging from $5 to $6 billion) were lenient attempts to find a middle ground with legislators in paying back trust and reserve accounts.
If anything, Sanford compromised too much, too fast - and did so at the peak of his political power.
No, it was the General Assembly which was unwilling to compromise with the governor, but that point has been lost forever in a dense maze of charts and graphs, the daily soap opera of State House intrigue and innuendo and a Legislature that grew increasingly emboldened when it realized it could step in and deliver body blows to this executive branch without having to take a solid punch in return.
FROM COMPROMISE TO CAVING
No one denies that last year's tort reform bill was a good thing, or that this year's workers' compensation efforts were well-intended and would have been hugely beneficial to our state's economy. And certainly, both are items that the governor was entirely correct in supporting.
But the fact that these two "down-ballot" executive initiatives, to borrow campaign terminology, were transformed into top-of-the-ticket administration priorities is a telling indicator of how desperate Sanford has gradually become to have some accomplishments - any accomplishments - to point to in his reelection campaign.
Predictably, tort reform plays a starring role in the governor's first 2006 television ad, along with a small business income tax cut that his campaign dubiously labels "personal" income tax relief. Of course, it is "personal" income tax relief if you happen to own your own company, but if you're one of the millions of South Carolinians who works for somebody else, you're still paying what is effectively the highest income tax rate in the Southeast.
And that rate is unlikely to drop anytime soon, now that Sanford has effectively abandoned his four-year quest for income tax cuts by embracing the populist property tax relief movement long-favored by his legislative antagonists. In inviting supporters to a hastily-arranged and poorly-attended State House rally over the weekend, the governor argued that the state should "use a portion of the incredible increase in this year’s tax revenues to fund permanent property tax relief."
Say it ain't so, governor. We thought it was income tax relief that stimulated job growth and investment, lured corporate management teams and attracted wealthy retirees to South Carolina, not property tax relief? When did feeding the populist beast to bolster reelection efforts become more important than creating jobs, raising income levels, expanding our revenue base and making South Carolina more competitive in the "flat world" that is the 21st Century economy?
Praised by legislators for his about-face, Sanford's inability to stick to his guns on this - the centerpiece of his 2002 campaign - is likely to be a quiet (if not conscience-grinding) footnote to the warm, public embrace he receives from vocal property tax activists, a big chunk of which are orchestrated, incidentally, by his former Communications guru, Chris Drummond.
CHOOSING LESS CHOICE
It's no coincidence that the most egregious of Sanford's recent reverals comes on the issue that generated the most controversy for the governor during his first term in office, his support of vouchers and tax credits for children trapped in failing schools.
Or perhaps we should say his "former" support of vouchers and tax credits for children trapped in failing schools.
The massively-curtailed "Put Parents in Charge" bill, which failed to pass the House of Representatives earlier this month by a scant seven votes, would have been a major step forward on the school choice front for the most at-risk school children in our state - specifically the 140,000 kids currently attending public schools rated as "failing" or "below average."
True, the bill wasn't the broad-based choice plan offered by the governor during his 2002 campaign or the near-universal choice proposal included in the original PPIC bill, but it would have been a remarkable first step in bringing the power of the marketplace to bear on an increasingly-expensive monopoly of academic failure.
Unfortunately, while lobbyists on both sides of the fight waged hand-to-hand combat for the hearts and minds of undecided legislators, the governor and his team were nowhere to be found. Having decided prior to the start of the legislative session that the PPIC compromise was not going to happen, Sanford instead put all of his political capital behind a statewide Charter School bill and left the much broader tax credit compromise to basically wither on the vine.
The Charter School bill passed, of course, and while it does represent a major step forward in expanding parental options, it won't have anywhere near the same impact as the tax credit compromise.
Of course, we're sure it will look great in a campaign commercial.
GUNS, NOT BUTTER
So where does this road of compromising and caving ultimately lead for our governor?
Few political observers see any real chance that Sanford will fail to win a second term, but wasn't that also the case before he inexplicably decided to take his foot off the accelerator on his big ticket reforms?
With millions of dollars in his campaign war chest, the anti-spending issue (which he owns) topping the voters' list of complaints, his popularity still remarkably high and four political lightweights constituting his only opposition, did Sanford really need to start taking "the road more traveled?"
Accomplishments like campaign finance reform, shorter lines at the DMV, millions in savings from his groundbreaking executive budgets and small business tax relief should provide more than enough meat to convince voters you've gotten something done - especially with over $5 million in the bank six months out from Election Day.
Some contend the governor is waiting for his second term to press the income tax, school choice and restructuring issues that formed the basis of his ascension to the office in the first place.
If so, fine.
But pressing them successfully will require Sanford to actively support legislative challengers in this primary and in 2008 who will swing the roll call margins in his favor, particularly in the State Senate. Thusfar, the governor has shown little appetite for doing so, despite the popular perception that he is "running against the General Assembly."
That certainly wasn't the case in 2004 and Sanford has little time left to make it the case in 2006.
Sanford must also learn to develop a more forceful, consequences-based standard in dealing with legislators who consistently oppose him - especially in districts where he is popular. It is frankly past time he shelved the charts and graphs and started speaking to RINO legislators and other opponents in the only language they understand - the political equivalent of a loaded gun pointed at their heads with an itchy trigger finger that's tired of waiting for change.
There's a reason they call it the "bully" pulpit, and if there's one thing Sanford needs above all else right now it would be a little more "bully" and a little less "pulpit."
The governor's slogan in 2002 was "A leader, not a politician." His slogan this go 'round is "A different kind of governor."
Of course he also believes that "politics is the art of the possible" and "change doesn't happen overnight."
It doesn't happen overnight, governor. But it doesn't happen at all if we don't keep fighting for it.