Republicans in search of a unified and unifying voice on the issue of small government would do well to take a gander at this Newsweek profile of Governor Mark Sanford, of South Carolina. Incurring the wrath of his fellow citizens, Governor Sanford has stood fast against receiving $700 million of the federal stimulus funds that would be due to his state, because the state legislature has thus far refused to set aside matching funds to pay down the state’s debt. The funds the Governor is refusing make up approximately 25% of the total in stimulus money that South Carolina would get.
As the story makes clear, Governor Sanford is paying a price for his stance–even amongst Republicans in the state. But it also makes clear that in the event that Governor Sanford wants to run for President in 2012, he would benefit mightily from his small government position. Sticking to one’s guns in the short term–while politically painful–can carry significant long term benefits.
The Newsweek story shows that the Governor is an authentic small-government advocate. But the genuine value in his stance comes from the Governor’s potential ability to help the Republican party rebrand itself. Big government conservatism reigned during the Bush years, a fact which goes a long way in explaining why it was that so many Republicans felt turned off and alienated from their party–an alienation that has led to significant defections from Republican rolls, and two consecutive and disastrous national election defeats. As former House Majority Leader Dick Armey has so often put it, when Republicans run as Republicans, they win. When Republicans run as Democrats, they lose. To which, I would add that when Republicans govern as Democrats, and then run as Democrats, they get utterly and completely routed.
That’s why it is refreshing to see that Sanford is governing as a Republican. Yes, his stance is causing agita, but the Republican brand is not going to be changed without a little pain. Old, bad habits do not go cheerfully into that good night. Rather, they rage, rage against the dying of the light, and it takes a great deal of sweat, exertion, trouble, and exposure to discomfort before those bad habits are dispensed with and overcome. For far too long, Republicans have acclimated themselves with the habit of talking a good small-government game, while at the same time engaging in the same kind of bad, big-government habits the Democrats have engaged in. People expect big-government behavior from Democrats. They do not expect it from Republicans. It’s no wonder that the latter have paid a price for their inability to be true to themselves and to their principles.
In 1964, Barry Goldwater offered the country a Republican party that would not merely parrot New Deal nostrums, but rather, would present a genuine small-government vision as an answer to the vision of an overweening state espoused by the New Dealers. “A choice, not an echo,” as he called it. Goldwater famously went down to defeat against Lyndon Johnson, but his boldness ended the era of the “me-too Republicans” who wanted only a little bit less than the Democrats wanted when it came to domestic policy formulation, and set the stage for conservatism and right-of-center libertarianism to take their rightful place in the mainstream of American political thought–a dramatic change in the political landscape that was symbolized and made possible by Goldwater’s example, and by Ronald Reagan’s election to the Presidency sixteen years after Goldwater made his own bid for the White House.
I don’t know if Mark Sanford is getting to the White House. But by his example, he may help Republicans remember the party’s philosophical roots. Even if this means that someone else gets elected as the next Republican President of the United States, Sanford will have still done his party, the small-government movement, and his country a tremendous favor.