I’ve been calling around to various Republican strategists who worked on the 2004 and 2008 presidential campaigns, getting their take on South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford’s walk in the woods. (Of course, by asking, I’m putting these guys in a potentially difficult position, since Sanford may still be interested in running for national office someday.) The reaction ran the gamut, from one comparing any national ambitions of Sanford’s to “very crispy toast” to others who suggested that a lot of Americans will relate to the urge to get away from it all.
One Republican strategist based in South Carolina wonders if Sanford didn’t let many people in state government know of his absence because of tensions with Lieutenant Gov. Andre Bauer.
“There’s a lot of reason for Sanford to not want to let Bauer run things, even for a couple of days,” said the strategist. “He and Sanford don’t get along, and never have. In South Carolina, governors and lieutenant governors don’t run together on a ticket, they’re nominated separately. I can see why he might not want to go through the motions of putting him in charge, but you don’t get a say. If you’re going to be incommunicado, doesn’t this become a matter that’s referred to in the state constitution? It’s hurricane season here. It wasn’t long ago there was a wildfire not too far from Myrtle Beach. It’s not like stuff can’t happen over four days. You sign on for being on call 24-7 when you run for governor – if you don’t want to deal with that, then don’t run for the office… Having said all that, you could argue that it is something of a public service to not put Andre Bauer in charge for any period of time.”
“Somebody wants to get away from it all and disconnect for a weekend and that makes them too strange to hold office? Then I guess 98 percent of Americans should never run for election,” said Mike Turk, eCampaign chair for the Bush/Cheney ‘04 campaign. “Had he turned up in a car accident in another state where he was banging his mistress (a la Mississippi’s Kirk Fordice) it may be another story.”
Another 2008 veteran simply doesn’t buy the explanation so far.
“I have to believe that Sanford, being the responsible guy that he appears to be, actually did speak to his wife and close aides about his plans and asked them to keep things quiet, and that his wife and aides then served him badly, which is an understatement,” said this senior strategist to a 2008 contender. “They really botched things and until Sanford actually talks about it, they’ve done some real damage to him. Whether he’s writing a book and isn’t quite sure how to deal with deadlines or just needs to blow off some steam, I do think it’s odd that he handled it this way. That said, I don’t think it behooves conservatives to do his political adversaries’ bidding in this regard. Let’s give the man a chance to turn on his cell phones, drive home and explain himself.”
Earlier this year, the Republican Liberty Caucus encouraged Sanford to seek the GOP presidential nomination in 2012. Yesterday’s news didn’t impact that conclusion, according to caucus press chair Aaron Biterman.
“I think a lot of Americans can relate to the Governor’s recent actions. Has life ever been so hectic for you that you need some time away to think things over and rejuvenate?” Biterman asked. “During George W. Bush’s presidential terms, he spent 487 days at Camp David and spent all or part of 490 days at his ranch in Crawford. Governor Sanford has spent less than a week away. Clearly he did not want to be disturbed, so he didn’t tell anyone where he was going. I don’t believe this will impact his prospective Presidential candidacy (should he choose to run) in 2012.”
For now, this is a p.r. disaster; imagine if the equivalent of yesterday’s train crash had occurred in South Carolina while the governor was incommunicado. Having said that, political life is full of moments that seem momentous at the time and fade into irrelevance – in 1988, Bill Clinton gave what was called the most boring convention speech in American history, in 2000, George W. Bush bombed in his appearance on the Letterman show. At one point it was considered a big deal that George H.W. Bush said, after debating Geraldine Ferraro in 1984, that “we tried to kick a little ass last night.”
Another veteran strategist who has worked with Sanford in the past thinks that this is normal for Sanford, but that his usual behavior looks different under national scrutiny.
“His m.o. when he takes a few days off is to do it very under the radar and totally check out, but this time political opponents — of which there are a lot more after this stimulus battle — whipped up a firestorm on a slow news day and the immediate responses from his camp didn’t do much to calm things down,” said the veteran of Palmetto State politics. “I do think these political opponents overreached on this one, though, and any political damage they hoped to cause the governor will be mitigated by the transparency of their motivated attacks.”
UPDATE: Two readers have quite different reactions:
While I fully appreciate the negative political implications of Sanford ‘disappearing’, shouldn’t conservatives start to at least defend the idea that we the people can manage on our own for a few days? Assuming a train crash had happened in SC over the weekend, first responders and others don’t need the governor to tell them how to extricate people and do triage. Investigators don’t need the governor to tell them how to start investigating what happened. Friends and neighbors don’t need the governor to tell them how to comfort the grieving. Enough with the idea that government has to constantly be on call to tell the proles what to do or that the ‘right’ person in charge in a crisis can make everything better; enough with the political cult of personality.
But just to take this example, governors declare disaster areas, request federal assistance, and directs the national guard. Could a lieutenant governor step in and do this without an official transfer of power?
Another reader’s take:
Maybe it will turn out that the staff and wife do know exactly where he is and that they do in fact have a way of contacting him if need be, but it’s not clear from the reports that I’ve read that he’s even know to be alive right now. No one has actually said that they have spoken with him since Thursday. This is not acceptable behavior from an executive. I fully understand the need to get away from time to time and I don’t begrudge him that. But the staff should be able to at least say we know where he is and have a method of contacting him.
But they don’t have either. They know he’s somewhere in the mountains and they have no way of contacting him. I find this very disappointing because I thought Sanford showed some promise for 2012 but this episode shows a distinct lack of judgment on his part.