The American Conservative, founded by Patrick Buchanan to serve as a voice for anti-war, anti-immigration conservative nationalists, plays an interesting role in conservative politics. Though not as widely read as National Review, which aims to set the tone for the movement conservative mainstream, TAC has gained a devoted following as a sharp critic of the conservative mainstream, a stance reflected in its ardent embrace of Ron Paul's quixotic yet very impressive presidential campaign.
And so Michael Brendan Dougherty's mostly admiring profile of South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford in TAC is worthy of note.
Dougherty does an excellent job of highlighting Sanford's potential appeal to the libertarians and paleoconservatives who backed Paul.
Sanford's conservative credentials compare favorably to anyone else mentioned as a 2012 presidential contender. He calls the public-education system "a Soviet-style monopoly." He promoted school choice through tax rebates to avoid the appearance of government control. He passed a "Castle doctrine" bill that was supported by the NRA. He favors a law-and-order approach to immigration, but opposed REAL ID on civil liberties grounds. Though he avoids showy displays of piety, he is reliably pro-life.
But the governor edges closer to pure libertarianism at times. He rolls his eyes at the Columbia sheriff's department's zeal in investigating Michael Phelps's recreational pot use. And he criticizes Alan Greenspan's management of the "opaque" Federal Reserve. "If you take human nature out of a Fed, it might work," he explains. "But you can't. You can have these wise men. But who wants to turn off the spigot at a party that's rolling?"
Yet in describing Sanford's Paul-like appeal, Dougherty also gestures towards Sanford's vulnerabilities in appealing to the wider Republican primary electorate. As the politics of the Obama foreign policy evovle, one wonders what Republicans will make of Sanford's apparent dovishness.
He also deviates from the Republican line on foreign policy. In Congress, he opposed Clinton's intervention in Kosovo. And he was one of only two Republicans to vote against the 1998 resolution to make regime change in Iraq the official policy of the United States. He says that it was a "protest vote" in which he tried to reassert the legislature's war-declaring powers. When asked about the invasion of Iraq, he extends his critique beyond the constitutional niceties. "I don't believe in preemptive war," he says flatly. "For us to hold the moral high ground in the world, our default position must be defensive."
As President Obama comes to "own" the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is easy to imagine anti-war sentiment building among grassroots Republicans beyond Ron Paul's fervently anti-war base. Sanford's position could thus represent shrewd political judgment. That said, it could also marginalize him, particularly if conservatives come to criticize Obama from the hawkish right.
Doughtery also makes note of Sanford's personal quirks, which might resonate with staunch fiscal conservatives.
And Sanford's penny-pinching, while appealing in an era of excess, occasionally defies all common sense. While he lived in Columbia as governor, the state classified his mansion on Sullivan's Island as a second residence and taxed it at the higher rate of 6 percent as opposed to 4 percent for a primary residence. It was only a difference of $3,300, but Sanford fought the classification even though he was renting the house out at the time.
More broadly, Sanford makes for a striking contrast with President Obama's activism. Best known for his penchant for using the veto pen, Sanford is an anti-activist, who deeply believes in the notion that the government that governs best governs least, thus explaining his resistance to accepting key stimulus funds. Moreover, whereas Obama is known for his personal magnetism, Sanford, in Dougherty's view, is not exactly a backslapping pol.
He can regale you with long stories details about a budget skirmish with the legislature, but he has almost nothing to say about USC basketball. He draws lessons from Ayn Rand's work ("She doesn't believe in the social compact really"), but is unfamiliar with basic sports metaphors, claiming, "We got the proposal to the 99-yard line."
In a sense, a Sanford campaign would represent a bet that the Ron Paul movement is a real and enduring phenomenon, one that will have lasting consequences in Republican primary politics. As a governor and former congressman with a long track record of pressing for limited government, Sanford is a far more conventional choice. At the same time, Sanford seems to share many of Paul's radical instincts. Many of Paul's fans saw him as a Goldwater figure, a candidate who would lose but who would go on to revitalize a distinctive Old Right tradition that has mostly faded in American politics. Sanford could thus be the heir who broadens the appeal of that message, not unlike Ronald Reagan. Right now, this seems rather unlikely. But a lot can change over the next few years.
With his sweeping agenda, Barack Obama has, it often seems, single-handedly broadened America's ideological spectrum, shifting the political center to the left. It seems natural that this would lead to a reaction on the right. The danger for Republicans is that a strongly anti-government turn might, as in Goldwater's 1964 defeat, further entrench the Democrats as the party of the broad middle.