Gov. Sanford on the Republican Wilderness

South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, fresh from a trip to testify on Capitol Hill arguing against a federal bailout of state and local governments, offers an insightful takes on the election outcomes in a new op-ed on

Republicans have campaigned on the conservative themes of lower taxes, less government and more freedom — they just haven’t governed that way. America didn’t turn away from conservatism, they turned away from many who faked it. So during our “time in the wilderness,” it’s my hope that we go back to the basics of conservatism — what it stands for and its real-world implications for people’s lives. The sooner we do, the sooner we will see good policy from Republicans, and the sooner I suspect we will return to electoral favor. A political party works much like a brand. Companies like Caterpillar and John Deere earn loyal customers by consistently delivering what they advertise — they walk the walk. The same is true of brands like Fed-Ex, the Boy Scouts of America, or the Marine Corps. I’m always struck by the degree to which the rank and file indeed know what they’re about. I’m equally struck by the degree to which those in office don’t always act on the same. Chick-fil-a does not say to its franchisees, “However you want to cook the sandwiches is cool with me.” They are precise in what they expect, and it’s my hope going forward more conservatives in all corners of America will be equally precise and exacting in making sure their views are reflected by the party that supposedly represents them. The time for doing so is short. President-elect Obama proposed $1 trillion in new spending on the campaign trail with no clear plan for paying for it. As a nation, we’re on the hook for $52 trillion — that represents an invisible mortgage of nearly $450,000 held by every household in America. We’ve thrown $2.3 trillion toward bailouts and stimulus this year with little to show for it in the way of results, and Congress is already contemplating yet another $150 billion to now bail out states that spent faster than even the federal government. I fear an Obama administration will welcome this. Borrowing from Medicare, Social Security, our grandkids and the Chinese to remedy a problem created by too much borrowing strikes me as odd, and hardly the “change” Americans really want. Accordingly, on these and other issues that involve borrowing to spend, I will work with others to change this kind of change.

It seems very clear to me that one of the main subtexts of the November 2008 election is that Americans are fed up with fiscally irresponsible leadership, as I wrote the other day commenting on Arizona’s election outcomes. Party affiliation seems to a certain extent almost a secondary matter. Just look at Indiana—Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels handily won a second term by a 60-40 margin, while a similar majority also voted for President-Elect Obama. I don’t see this as inconsistent at all—both campaigns presented their candidates as wise fiscal stewards, plain and simple. Sanford’s discussion of branding is also relevant. Republicans were on top of the branding when they swept into Congress in 1994, but the party quickly began to ignore their customers and deliver products they didn’t want (where to start…hmmm…bailouts, steel tariffs, prescription drug benefit, partial bank nationalization, etc. etc.). The focus seemed to shift towards tax cuts as the be all and end all of the conservative movement, as if cutting taxes somehow makes up for “drunken sailor” spending and the lack of any substantive progress on entitlement reform, balanced budgeting, etc. Tax cuts became almost a voter consolation prize for going along with the other fiscal stupidity. Personally, I’m usually in favor of cutting taxes of all kinds, but I confess to a certain empty feeling because tax cuts are usually never accompanied by a laser-like focus on seriously cutting spending, improving government performance, and addressing the looming entitlement and pension train wrecks. I sense that many people out there are looking for the same package. They ask themselves a reasonable question: “why is it that my family has to sacrifice and trim spending when the family budget gets tight, but government gets to blow my money left and right and then come hat in hand asking for a tax increase or bailout?” The least helpful thing to give to an addict to support them is more of what they’re addicted to. This sort of enabling behavior leaves a path of personal and relationship destruction in its wake. As Gov. Sanford implies, the solution to government’s spending and borrowing addiction cannot be giving them more money and standing by while they heap on more debt. It may offer some temporary relief, but only forestalls the inevitable day of reckoning to come. What’s needed instead is an intervention. This necessarily involves invoking the will and fortitude to ignore the inevitable pleas and distractions (“the poor will suffer! the elderly will starve! what about the kids! we won’t be able to do our noble work!” yada yada…) and getting on to the business of rehab and detox. Instead of asking Americans to “sacrifice” by extracting more from their wallets, what we really need is for Americans to sacrifice their support for sprawling, bloated government and instead ignore (or vote out) those policymakers pushing new spending and new programs with a barrage of good intentions and empty promises. It’s our collective willingness to buy government’s snake oil that keeps us on an inherently unsustainable fiscal path. Kudos to Gov. Sanford for being the most active and vocal executive prominently conveying the message of fiscal responsibility and the perils of government “solutions” to pressing challenges. Be sure to read his article in Reason’s Annual Privatization Report 2006 for more insights from a true champion of freedom and markets.