A painful choice at
the top of the ticket
By BRAD WARTHEN
Editorial Page Editor
THIS IS A tough election season, especially at the very top of the ticket. Here’s the dilemma:
South Carolina suffers from a leadership deficit in two ways. First, our government is structured to resist change. I’ve been around, and I’ve never seen a system better suited to preserving the status quo. It fragments authority so that no one can bring our limited resources to bear effectively on our challenges. And the voters can’t hold anyone accountable.
This would be OK if the status quo were good. It isn’t. We trail the rest of the nation by almost any measurement you choose.
Here’s the second problem: People who have the vision to lead us out of this situation, and the leadership skills to implement the vision, just don’t run for office. Especially not for governor. Why would an exceptional leader run for an office that’s designed to be ineffective?
The governor used to be even weaker. Sen. Tommy Moore helped broker the 1993 deal that at least boosted the scope of the position up to its current inadequate level. Unfortunately, he shows little interest in taking the next steps in reform.
Still, he’s more inclined in that direction than Florence Mayor Frank Willis. That’s one of the reasons we’ve given Sen. Moore our qualified endorsement in Tuesday’s Democratic primary.
The choice is more maddening on the Republican side.
Four years ago, we had high hopes that Mark Sanford would meaningfully address our first leadership problem — the structure. He really seemed to get it.
He failed terribly. Lawmakers aren’t inclined to give the executive branch more power anyway, and they certainly weren’t going to do it for Mark Sanford. They don’t like him. Why? The list is long, but look no further than at the destructive way the governor has chosen to spend the last couple of weeks of this campaign.
He has little to show in the way of accomplishments, so he decided to run against the Legislature. Over the budget. There are better ways lawmakers could spend our money than some of the ways they do. But that’s not his complaint. He just wants them to spend less, period. Never mind that our highways go unpatroled, or our prisons inadequately guarded. Never mind that you can’t get into an emergency room for all the mental patients the state no longer treats. Never mind the neglected rural schools.
He just believes government should spend less. In general. It’s an arbitrary, ideological thing, and don’t ask me to explain it. You either believe it or not. The governor really, really believes it.
Legislators, who are mostly Republicans, believe it, too. That’s why they keep cutting taxes and haven’t raised a general tax since 1987. That’s why so many important functions are underfunded.
But the governor’s so busy pounding away at them as “big spenders” that he couldn’t pause to debate his primary opponent last week. So Dr. Oscar Lovelace appeared on live television and answered questions alone. Sad.
I really liked Dr. Lovelace when he came in to talk to our board, for the same reasons I like the Jimmy Stewart character in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” He believes fervently in the right things, from public schools to the need to raise the cigarette tax to improve health care. But he’s also as politically naive as Mr. Smith.
Worse, he sees no need to change the way our system is set up. He seems to think he would be able to change things through sheer moral force. He doesn’t understand how things work — or rather, how they don’t work.
What did Gov. Sanford say when he spent two hours with our editorial board? Well, a lot of things, but here’s the main message I came away with: If re-elected, he’ll get that government restructuring thing done this time.
Right. Tell me another one.
That was on May 10. In the weeks since, we’ve gone over and over the options, and it’s time to decide. And we’re left with the fact that in the Republican primary, there’s only one person who’s even interested in changing the system so that it will be possible to change other things.
There are some races this season to be enthusiastic about. I urge you, without reservation, to get out and vote for Bo
b Staton for superintendent of schools, and House candidates Bill Cotty, Ken Clark, Joe McEachern and Anton Gunn. But for governor? The editorial at left is the best we can say.
South Carolina needs and deserves a better choice. But this is what we’ve got, for now.