Many things happened while Mark Sanford was governor of South Carolina, but the one event everyone remembers was really a cover story: the ill-fated hike down the Appalachian Trail that turned out to be an extramarital affair with a woman from Argentina.
Sanford is now hiking the comeback trail, leading a crowded field of Republicans seeking to win a congressional seat left vacant by Tim Scott’s appointment to the Senate. There are two ways to look at Sanford’s re-entry into politics.
One way is proposed by Sanford himself. “I absolutely failed in my personal life and my marriage but one place I never did fail was with the taxpayers,” he has said.
The other perspective is offered by one of Sanford’s opponents, Teddy Turner. The money line in Turner’s anti-Sanford ad is, “Sugar, just give me one more chance.”
Sanford is a complicated case. Not only was he unfaithful to his wife, but he bailed on the state for four days to visit his “soul mate.” Nobody knew where he was. There is some controversy over how much taxpayers footed the bill for his unexplained jaunts.
In an ideal world, Sanford would have disqualified himself as a candidate for the nomination of a party that talks about the sanctity of marriage. From Bill Clinton to Newt Gingrich and Rudy Giuliani, I’ve generally asked: If a man’s wife can’t trust him, why should the voters?
Yet Turner’s ad gives Sanford company he never really kept. “I know I’ve spent too much, but what’s a few trillion?” the actor asks Sugar. “It was all for you. But I’ve changed. I’ll keep my promises this time.”
Sanford wasn’t one of those Republicans who spent a lot of money. He constantly fought legislators in his own party over spending increases, proposing state budgets that grew no faster than inflation plus population growth. He erased an unconstitutional deficit without raising taxes or raiding trust funds.
That’s why a lot of big-government Republicans sang “Happy Trails” when Sanford got himself in trouble.
In 2005, Sanford’s vetoes knocked back what would have been 9.1 percent growth in the state budget to 7.5 percent. The following year, he vetoed the state budget in its entirety.
Sanford vetoed 243 items in the legislature’s next spending plan, totaling $167 million. He was one of the few Republican governors who resisted taking stimulus funds, and then wanted to use the Obama money to pay down the state debt rather than finance spending increases that would eventually be billed to the taxpayers.
Once Sanford vetoed 106 pork-barrel projects and was overruled on all but one. He arrived at the legislature with a pig under each arm.
In 2010, Sanford was one of just four governors to receive an “A” grade on the Cato Institute’s fiscal report card. The libertarian think tank praised Sanford for cutting the small business tax rate from 7 percent to 5 percent, for cutting sales and income tax rates, and for projections showing general fund spending to be slightly lower than when he took office.
Now, in a sane political world, none of this would matter. Good stewards of taxpayer dollars wouldn’t be so hard to find. We could be picky and choose one with fewer blemishes in his personal life.
But in the world in which we live, fiscally responsible politicians are rarer than buried treasure. Republican governors like Chris Christie and Rick Scott are accepting President Obama’s Medicaid expansion, increasing spending, and helping to make Obamacare permanent.
Republican senators had to be shamed into joining Sen. Rand Paul’s filibuster to gain assurances from the Obama administration on the most basic limits of government power.
During Sanford’s first stint in Congress, when he voted against nice-sounding but unconstitutional and expensive bills, the Republican leadership would actually chastise him.
“I remember the leadership would come and say, ‘This stuff is okay during the campaign, but we have to govern,’ and I thought it was govern toward a specific end, not just govern to govern,” Sanford recalled to The American Conservative.
The spending he has opposed has a much bigger price tag than any taxpayer cost of his hanky-panky.
I wish Mark Sanford honored the promise he made to his wife. But the country desperately needs political leaders who will honor their promise to uphold the Constitution.
It’s understandable that Jenny Sanford might not want to forgive him, much less run his campaign. But cash-strapped taxpayers should at least give it some thought.
W. James Antle III is the editor of The Daily Caller News Foundation and author of the forthcoming book “Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?“ Follow him on Twitter.