Does Sanford really want us to be counted?

Had a number of thoughts when I read this story this morning, which among other things said:

Gov. Mark Sanford urged state residents opposed to using federal aid in the state budget to call lawmakers as they work out a final budget compromise this week.

The $5.7 billion draft budget, Sanford said, puts off needed cuts and reforms by tapping $350 million in federal stimulus money. Sanford has said he will not accept the stimulus money unless lawmakers pay off an equal amount of state debt.

“This is the time to stand and be counted with regard to the stimulus money,” Sanford said. “We’re going to paper over all of those changes that might be made and simply spend the money.”

Here are my questions:

  1. Does the governor actually think that if the people of South Carolina stood up and were counted on this issue, more of them would agree with him on the stimulus? (From everything I’ve heard, that seems extremely doubtful.)
  2. Is he making a cynical calculation that — in keeping with the human-nature phenomenon that only people who are against something bother to call (something I have experienced in the news biz, my favorite extreme example being all those letters we got against the U.S. taking military action in Afghanistan in the fall of 2001, a view which you knew wasn’t representative of South Carolina, yet which dominated among the letters we received for a time)?
  3. Does he or his allies at SCRG or ReformSC have an organized calling campaign ready, designed to look like a “spontaneous” response to his call to the public?
  4. Will the far greater number of South Carolinians who oppose the governor on the stimulus make an effort to be heard by lawmakers, or since they’re satisfied the General Assembly is on their side, will they decide not to bother them?
  5. Whether they hear more from the governor’s side or the other, would lawmakers be swayed by lots of calls and e-mails?
  6. Should they be swayed by such input, given that they’ve had months to think about this and should have made up their minds by now?
  7. What do you think about “call your legislator” campaigns in general?
  8. Which is tackier? The governor asking citizens to drive lawmakers nuts at the State House while they’re trying to finish the budget, or pro-stimulus lawmakers urging folks last month to call the governor at the mansion?
  9. And finally, are these examples of excessive spending he cites the best he can do? $500,000 for State House security (which is really a spitting match over who will control security, Sanford or McConnell)? $750,000 for hydrogen research (note that S.C. investment in such research resulted in a $12.5 million grant just two weeks ago)? A million for football traffic control? Where’s the $350 million he says we don’t need?

Here are my answers, to which I invite you to add your own:

  1. Possibly. One gets the impression that his personal feedback loop is fairly limited. He’s not the most social guy, and he seems to have a selective memory for those who tell him “attaboy.”
  2. I don’t think so. I think he actually believes there’s a “silent majority” that agrees with him. At least, he seems to believe, most of the people who matter agree with him. (If a “silent majority” does call lawmakers, does that mean it should be called something else? Of course, the convenient thing for Sanford is that when it doesn’t call, he can explain it away by saying, “That’s because it’s silent.”)
  3. Maybe, but frankly (and yeah I know that this is inconsistent with my answer on “2,” but who cares?), I don’t think he’s thought that far. The more I think about it, the more I suspect he’s thinking that he’s won the day merely by asserting that if the people of S.C. “stand up to be counted,” they will agree with him. He’s struck this pose so many times that he mistakes the rhetoric for reality. Let me explain: By saying the people of SC agree with him, he believes that makes it so, and is satisfied. (And who’s to say him nay, in the absence of evidence to the contrary? Even if nobody calls legislators, nothing is proved either way.) And then, when lawmakers ignore him, he claims they were ignoring the people of SC, when in reality they were only ignoring him. You know, because those lawmakers are so wicked and all. And thus the world according to Mark Sanford stays intact, with none of his assumptions challenged. Actually, the more I think about this theory, the more I think it is, in the immortal words of Marisa Tomei, “dead-on balls accurate.” And if I’m wrong, nobody can prove I’m wrong — hey! So this is what it’s like to be Mark Sanford! Yeah — I’m right because I’m right, and no actual facts in the world can persuade me otherwise. This could get to be a habit.
  4. Almost certainly not. Why call and bug your lawmaker if he’s doing what you want?
  5. Yes. Particularly if they’re hearing from people they know, back in their districts. Otherwise, probably not.
  6. No, and you can tell which way I was leaning by the way I worded that one. This will offend “small-d” democrats, but I’m a “small-r” republican. I believe in representative democracy. We elect people to go study issues and take time arriving at conclusions through a deliberative process. And however messy or slapdash that process is in reality, a representative should NOT throw away his conclusions based on a few phone calls (which are, 99 percent of the time, orchestrated), either way.
  7. On this point, I’m ambivalent. Yeah, when I was with the newspaper we used to do empowering things like tell people how to contact their lawmakers and even, occasionally, urging them to do so. And I think getting public input should be part of the decision-making process. But only part. Once again, it is the duty of an elected representative to study and issue and become more knowledgeable about it than he would be if he were back in his district busy earning a living doing something else. Elected representatives, in a republic, are delegated to spend more time on an issue than the average voter can devote to it, and thereby make a better decision than they would have from the gut. Yep, the system’s far, extremely far, from perfect. But I believe more bad decisions result from lawmakers voting from the gut than from deliberation.
  8. Asking people to call the gov at the mansion is tackier, no question — even though the house does belong to us.
  9. Apparently, that is the best he can do, which is pathetic. But then, he never really has had a case on this.

On that last point — the governor does this all the time. The thing is, he is very often right about the things he criticizes the General Assembly for. The “Competitive Grants” program is a wasteful boondoggle. The thing is, it’s such a tiny fraction of the state budget. And he uses such minor figures as his entire argument that government spending is billions out of control, which is ridiculous. Of course, you know that what he really wants is to stop the state from spending on public education and other substantial things. But that doesn’t sound so good, unless your audience is Howard Rich. So he cites a penny’s worth of pork and extrapolates a fortune wasted, which fools some of the people, but my no means all.

But you know what I’m noticing now? Government has been cut SO much that the governor even has trouble coming up with convincing anecdotal evidence. Instead of something clearly wasteful (or at least, that sounds clearly wasteful) for the state to be spending on, like a Green Bean Museum, he’s reduced to citing things that can easily be characterized as petty and self-concerned. Rather than arguing that the state shouldn’t have airplanes, he complains about control of those planes shifting from his Commerce Department to Budget and Control. Or McConnell taking State House security from the agency that Sanford semi-controls.

You know me — I think the governor should control all of the executive branch. But I also know that this would not in and of itself save large amounts of money. I favor it because I want government to be more effective and accountable. To argue that, because a minor function is being taken away from him, it proves that SC doesn’t need the $700 million in stimulus, just doesn’t follow any kind of logic.

17 thoughts on “Does Sanford really want us to be counted?

  1. Brad Warthen

    You know what? Reading this again this morning — I wrote it late Tuesday — it occurs to me that I need to make a new rule: No more coffee in the afternoons.

    This was worth a paragraph or two, and I just went on and on…

  2. Lee Muller

    You are obsessed with trashing Governor Sanford, and obsessed with helping politicians waste more of our children’s money.

  3. Brad Warthen

    And frankly, I refuse to take a backseat to anybody in my opposition to WASTEFUL spending, whether it’s opposing the aforementioned “Competitive Grants” or praising spending transparency such as in this recent post.

    The problem with our governor is that he considers all of government to be wasteful spending. He doesn’t come out and say that; he merely cites small and easily criticized details here and there. But by opposing the very idea of plugging part of the hole in fundamental government services by denying an infusion of $700 billion, he reveals his true aim. And it’s the same as Grover Norquist’s goal of reducing government to a size at which it can be drowned in a bathtub.

    There was an interesting piece in the WSJ that touches on this very phenomenon, of Republicans of the anti-gummint stripe doing all they can to strip government down until it is ineffective — then, of course, they can blame it for being a failure, and use that to demand further cuts. It’s a fundamentally dishonest, self-fulfilling process that does deep harm to society.

  4. Doug Ross

    > The problem with our governor is that he considers all of government to
    > be wasteful spending.

    I’ve noticed your hyperbole filter seems to have been turned off since leaving The State.

  5. Bart

    It seems to me that what we are going through in South Carolina can be aptly summed up by using one simple word. “Conundrum”

    Sanford believes the majority of South Carolinians agree with him but does his office receive a lot of feedback from various individuals or from the same list of usual suspects from both sides of the issue? Brad points out that in his opinion, most responses are orchestrated and that may well be the case here.

    But, who knows? If we go by experience with responses posted on the blogs from around South Carolina, there are generally only a small group of regulars who take time to express or voice their positions and opinions. You can go from blog to blog on a daily basis and see the same group presenting the same argument or making the same point they did yesterday, a week ago, a month ago, so on and so on.

    Based on recent history, the one event when average citizens took part in a protest was the Tea Bag protests over excess spending and taxation. If we can draw any implication from this event is that come next election day, we will see an even higher turnout of voters. It takes a lot for the average person to give up their time to attend a political protest. My wife has never attended a public protest for anything – she went to this one and took someone with her.

    I would hazard a guess that the Governor and state representatives are subjected to the same thing because not everyone is going to take the time to send a letter, an email, or post something on YouTube, Twitter, Face Book, or whichever medium one chooses to use. There are generally only a handful of activists who participate in the democratic process. About the only time the majority of the population even stops to consider what is going on is during the election process and even then, most voters don’t make a decision until the last minute.

    I once commented that Sanford’s greatest strength is also his greatest weakness. I admire his personal integrity but criticize his absolute refusal to compromise on this issue. It is abundantly clear that the majority of South Carolinians want the stimulus money and do not want Sanford to refuse the $700 million. The people are not strict ideologues like Sanford but are the average working people who populate this state. They understand that if we don’t take the money, along the line, somewhere in the future, we will be included in the process of paying it back some way, somehow, including South Carolinians who didn’t have use of the money. It may be us, our children, or our grandchildren or even farther down the generational line.

    That in a nutshell is how the average citizen probably looks at the issue. We are going to be responsible for repayment, why not take the money and put it to good use in the short term? Of course there are arguments on both sides concerning the intelligence of the general assembly and how effective they can be when deciding how to use the money. Will they understand that it is for short term use only, meant to kick start the economy or will they use it to set up more programs that will require future funding by the taxpayers? This is the $64 thousand dollar question!

    For those who believe in a strictly capitalist system, that belief is a pipe dream just as it is a pipe dream to believe in a strictly socialist system. Even worse are those who believe in communism. Any successful government will have elements of both capitalism and socialism but in limited form and administered with competence and professionalism. Unfortunately we send incompetents to Columbia and Washington on a too regular basis.

  6. Brad Warthen

    Actually, Doug, I say the same things I did at The State — you’ll note some links above go back to what I’ve always said.

    And the governor’s kinship to Grover Norquist — who is so proud of the “bathtub” comment that he gave me a copy of the Mother Jones article quoting him as saying that when we met (linked above) — has been obvious for years. And for activists of the Norquist ilk, the problem is spending on government, period. It’s not “this program is wasteful and that one is not.” It’s “starve government” — all of it, the worthy with the wasteful. And there’s no denying the more you slash worthy or efficient programs, the less likely they are to be effective, and the less effective they are, the more you can heap anti-government contempt upon them, thereby feeding your movement.

    One of the signature positions of the governor — and one that unfortunately has been mainstreamed to the point that even the Chamber of Commerce and other such groups endorse it to some extent — is the notion of an arbitrary limit on spending. And by “arbitrary” I mean one that bears no relationship to the actual need for this or that program, but simply picks a number (a function of the CPI or population or some combination thereof) that decides RIGHT NOW that a year from now, or 10 years from now, government will not increase spending by more than X amount per year. This mechanism completely supplants the process of representative democracy. It says, even if the people elect representatives in the next election, or the next 10 elections, whom they charge with doubling spending on prisons or some other crying need we don’t even see now, they can’t do it. A mathematical formula has been substituted for self-government.

    Combine that with cutbacks in lean times, such as we have seen over the past year, and you have a mechanism for racheting down, permanently, spending on government as a portion of economic activity. THAT is why the governor is almost desperate at the idea that the effect of those cuts might be relieved by the stimulus money. That would undo all of the “progress” of cutbacks over the past year, and in his book that simply will not do.

    These observations are based on everything the governor says and does, and there is nothing hyperbolic about them. Once again, compare the ACTUAL CUTS the governor is able to suggest to this or that program that he portrays as wasteful, and compare it to the $700 million. Nothing could be clearer than the fact that for Mark Sanford, it’s not about a few wasteful programs that add up to peanuts next to the full budget. It’s about government spending, period. And his goal, as expressed in his public actions, is to reduce and/or retard growth in that OVERALL number, by whatever means available.

    So where’s the hyperbole?

  7. Bill C.

    Brad needs a 12-step program to quit his obsession with the governor. He’s now blaming Sanford for his obsession, “He, I’m not the guy having a press conference on the subject every day. He is.”.

    Big deal Brad, he’s the governor… people expect to hear from him. You’re the one who insists scrutinizing every word that comes out of his mouth. Who are you in the whole concept of this… a nobody. You’re about as convincing as the abortion guy/freak who stands in front of the capitol with his mother every Wednesday morning, or the dead baby guy with the stroller. You all have a few screws loose. Except for a handful of your faithful sheep nobody misses you from your daily bashing of the governor in that 3rd rate newspaper you used to work for.

  8. Doug Ross

    Yes, Bart brings some sanity to your obsession with and misrepresentation of Mark Sanford’s fiscal policy.

    To suggest that Sanford considers ALL government spending to be wasteful is incorrect and weakens your argument. He has presented budget after budget that doesn’t eliminate government spending. My guess is his ideal government would be one that is approximately 60-75% of it’s current size, dealing specifically with the tasks a government should do.

    To suggest that he only can mention some (in your view) minor programs is completely untrue. Why don’t you look at the budget he proposed and see what’s gone?

    Instead of saying essentially “yes, the competitive grants program is a waste but what else can we do about it except whine and move on” is why Sanford is governor and you are not. Let’s make it crystal clear – AS LONG AS THERE IS MONEY FOR THE COMPETITIVE GRANTS SLUSH FIND THERE IS NO NEED TO LAY OFF TEACHERS. Case closed.

  9. Brad Warthen

    Doug, I’ve spent years praising the governor for his efforts to build a priority-based budget, and have criticized lawmakers for not being willing to undergo the same kind of process. I didn’t necessarily agree with the all the governor’s priorities, but did agree with some, and always lauded the process.

    But we passed a new threshold with the governor a couple of years back. You may recall that in 2006, he vetoed the entire budget. Sure, he fully relied upon the Legislature not to let him do it, but that just reinforces my point. That was a critical moment in my perception of this guy. I knew he was enamored of gestures over substance (he’d rather bring in pigs to defecate on the new carpet that cost the taxpayers thousands of dollars than sit down and have a discussion with lawmakers); we knew that.

    But here was a case in which, in order to DEFEND him, you have to say it was all about the gesture, the political point, and that he didn’t mean to shut down the government. And you’d be right. It was. Of course, if on the other hand you want to say that he really MEANT it, you’re saying that he indeed meant to shut down the government.

    So lets say it was about the political point (which of course means that he relied completely upon the responsibility of a General Assembly which he denigrates as irresponsible at every turn). What was the political point? Well, it was unmistakable: He was saying that it would be better to shut down the government — as he and his brethren tried to do on the federal level when he was in Congress, you’ll recall — than to operate it under a budget that did not meet with his approval. (And his argument, by the way, was not that this or that or the other program was wasteful compared to other programs, but that in the aggregate, the budget simply spent too much on government — “too much” being defined by his own arbitrary mathematical formula. Go back and read what happened.)

    In that moment in 2006, Mark Sanford crossed his Rubicon.

    He’s the one who made that grand (hyperbolic, if you will) gesture. And none of us should forget it.

  10. bud

    Brad, you make some pretty good points, but man, the over-the-top rhetoric is so unbecoming of a professional journalist. The comment about the governor being oppossed to ALL government spending is sort of a throw-away comment one would use at a party after a few shots of tequila, not something that buttresses your arguments in any meaningful fashion.

    The proper argument here is straight-forward enough but is generally missed. This is about using proven Keynsian economic tools to stimulate the economy. Period. All these other arguments are just silly. In two years if the stimulus works we won’t have to worry about deficits or finding money to continue the programs established with the money. We’ll be humming along with a sound economy and we’ll be rolling in money. On the other hand, if it doesn’t work and the economy is still in tatters the least of our problems will be a government deficit. That would signal a cataclysmic event on an unprecidented scale. But if we don’t take the money we’ll likely be in bad shape regardless. Let’s just take the damn money and hold our breath and hope it works. Free-market capitalism alone will NOT, repeat NOT solve this crisis.

  11. Kathryn Fenner

    Keep it up, Brad. The Governor started it. We need articulate passionate responses like yours. The teachers and police officers whose jobs are at stake are too busy and perhaps not articulate enough (law enforcement officers anyway) to talk back to daily press conferences.
    Thanks for doing it!

    but lay off the coffee–too much is bad for your health, and we know what state health care is in!

  12. Lee Muller

    This Democrat pork money is not about stimulating the economy.
    These are hundreds of earmark projects which were stripped from bills over the last 10 years, all rolled together.

    So far, only $82 billion of the $787 billion has been allocated to projects.
    Only $8 billion has been released.

    Most of it will not be spent this year. Most will be spent in election year 2010.

    So it will have little effect on solving the recession.

    The recession will not be solved until the housing market shakes out, and the Democrats are fighting desperately to keep that from happening, as they try to prop up housing prices. The corruption is not addressed at FNMA and FMAC which paid $400,000,000 in bonuses to board members, 60% of them on Obama’s campaign staff.

  13. Bill C.

    Brad would this have been the same 2006 state budget that was so full of pork that the easiest thing to do was to send it back as a whole pig?

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