Michael Steele’s mania gets the airtime, but South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford is shaking out as the real Republican nemesis for Barack Obama’s effort to redefine government as hero rather than villain. Both Obama and the Democratic National Committee know this, which is why they’re picking a fight on his home turf.

Sanford, who is chair of the Republican Governors Association, has been an outspoken critic of Obama’s stimulus. Last week, he requested the right to use $700 million of it to pay down debt rather than spending it on job creation and social services. (House Majority Whip and S.C. Rep. Jim Clyburn wrote language into the bill that put most of the state’s money outside of Sanford’s authority.) The Obama administration has denied that request. But more importantly, the DNC is airing ads in South Carolina all week slamming Sanford for making the request in the first place.

Conservative writer Reihan Salam makes an interesting case in a FORBES column and in his blog at the ATLANTIC for why Sanford, and thus this dispute, very much matters. Steele, Bobby Jindal, Sarah Palin and all the rest of the GOP sideshow notwithstanding, Mark Sanford likely represents the party’s intellectual and political future. He’s rooted in the party’s southern, white male base. He’s clearly eyeing a 2012 primary bid. And most important, he’s now the party’s only coherent voice articulating a set of post-Bush ideas.

What are those ideas? Well, they’re actually pre-Reagan. Salam argues that Sanford is Barry Goldwater revived and refined. Goldwater’s politics were clear and unforgiving: both spending and tax cuts are bad. If you shrink government, he said, and force people to take responsibility for themselves, that will foster a sound economy and society. This was a political dud, of course, so as Salam writes in FORBES, Ronald Reagan tweaked it into a feel-good, winning message.

In the decades that followed, conservatives moved away from Goldwater’s demanding creed, not least in order to win over voters who never fully embraced the politics of self reliance. Whereas in 1976 Ronald Reagan emphasized the central importance of balanced budgets and devolving power from the federal government to the states, in 1980 he veered sharply away from “root-canal economics,” promising instead to deliver pain-free prosperity through a sharp reduction in taxes.

At the same time, Reagan backed a massive increase in defense expenditures, a kind of military Keynesianism that helped fuel the Sunbelt boom. Many of Reagan’s small-government admirers were growing rich off big government defense contracts.

Advertisement

Bush drove this untenable formula of reduced revenues and increased spending to its breaking point, with his massive tax cuts and equally massive war budget. But as Salam notes, most GOP standard bearers have nonetheless remained faithful to it—and thereby turned off not only most of America but the party’s small-government base. Not Mark Sanford. He’s abandoned the Reagan-to-Bush conservative consensus and put his fresh new face on Goldwater’s old ideas. As Salam writes:

Unlike John McCain or Mitt Romney, Sanford goes far beyond criticizing earmarks. In the face of a severe recession, he has refused to accept hundreds of millions of dollars in federal aid. Recognizing that the military establishment represents an enormous slice of federal spending, Sanford has also declared that he opposes pre-emptive wars, like the invasion of Iraq. In short, Sanford is the real deal. He is the candidate Rush Limbaugh and countless others who embrace the cause of shrinking government have been waiting for.

Advertisement

The question is whether the rest of America—or even the broader GOP—has also been waiting for him. Salam points out that Sanford is a more politically professionalized and viable Ron Paul—whose populist, Goldwater-esqe primary challenge drew remarkable enthusiasm for a fringe candidate. If a few years of dropping billions into AIG bonus payments and failed auto companies doesn’t turn the economy around after all, voters may find Sanford’s small-government zeal far more compelling than it sounds today. Who knows. But as the DNC and Obama have made clear this week, it’s a threat they’re best served tackling right now.

—KAI WRIGHT