ONCE PEOPLE realize that South Carolina alone in the world puts politics ahead of competence and elects our military leader, they tend to be appalled.
Once people realize that there’s nothing in our constitution or our law that requires the adjutant general to have ever served in the military — much less the S.C. National Guard that he commands — they see the problem.
Once they think about how adjutant generals have to have money every four years to run an election campaign and how the only people who have any motivation to donate are those whose promotions the generals decide, they get uncomfortable.
Once people realize that members of the National Guard can’t challenge a sitting adjutant general, because to do so would be pretty much the definition of insubordination, they recognize that the supposed advantage of this system is an illusion. And that’s a kind word for it.
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Once people recall some of the clearly inappropriate people who have sought the position — consider this spring’s GOP primary, when a junior officer in the Army Reserves who was on probation from stalking charges took on Adjutant General Bob Livingston — they get a little frightened about our system.
Once people recognize that, since the rest of us also vote, it is at best delusional to believe that electing the adjutant general allows current and former National Guard members to select their leader — as if that were a good idea anyway — the military support for the current system drops off.
And they want to save our state from electing an incompetent adjutant general, who then is charged with playing a significant role in our nation’s defense. Protect the integrity of our military from the taint of pay-for-play politics. End our state’s embarrassment.
If you’re a regular reader of this column, you know about all this. And since you know about all this, chances are excellent that you’re planning to vote “yes” on the amendment on the Nov. 4 ballot that asks to change the state constitution to write clear military requirements into the job description of the adjutant general and allow the governor to appoint the adjutant general.
The problem is that most people don’t know this. And if you don’t know all this and haven’t thought about it, all you see on the ballot is the idea of taking something away from voters. Never mind that it’s a useless something, a something that steals a little bit of our attention away from the races we need to be deciding, a something we all know will one day lead to tremendous embarrassment and scandal and, who knows, lost lives.
Unless someone lays out for all the voters who don’t read this column the painfully obvious reason they and our state need to discard this system that the rest of the world abandoned many, many decades ago, then most people will vote against this change.
And that will not only maintain this dangerous system but also likely doom any chance of letting governors appoint the director of the Agriculture Department and the Education Department and other positions that really shouldn’t be elected because the officeholders are supposed to implement state law, without discretion. After all, this is the most obvious, the most clear-cut case of an office that should be appointed.
Referendums don’t win themselves. They need support. Active, public support. This one needs support.
Government reformers have been trying for years to get this question on the ballot, but the Legislature wouldn’t even consider the idea until the adjutant general got behind it. Which he did.
As Gen. Livingston told me last year, the nation’s increasing reliance on the National Guard has made it imperative that the adjutant general is up to the job — which you simply can’t ensure through a public election.
“We’ve had great adjutants in the past,” he said. “But the level of play for the National Guard nationally has just elevated to such a level that we cannot afford to make a mistake, and we cannot afford to have politics within the Guard, and that’s just something that the current system does allow to happen.”
Gen. Livingston worked hard to get the Legislature to authorize this referendum. He needs to work just as hard to convince the public to vote for this. At the least, he needs to be making regular public appearances between now and Nov. 4, explaining the need for change to anyone who will listen.
He’s not the only one. All of those retired National Guard officers who have worked so hard for this change need to be talking up their friends, making the rounds at civic clubs and anywhere else they can get an audience, explaining how dangerous it is for our state to have absolutely no minimum requirements for the commander of our National Guard.
The same goes for all the people who are reading this column and nodding their heads in agreement. If you can’t command a public audience, you still can talk to friends and family and neighbors and co-workers. Send this column to everybody you know; talk it up where ever two or more are gathered.
And let’s not forget the 108 members of the House and 39 members of the Senate who voted to put this question on the ballot. That’s 147 people who ought to be campaigning for its passage.
Most of all, we need to hear from the most visible advocates of empowering governors to act like governors: Gov. Nikki Haley and Sen. Vincent Sheheen. This is a signature issue for both of them. It’s not too much to ask them to set aside their bickering for long enough to make a joint appearance — or to cut a TV ad together — asking voters to vote yes for the military meritocracy.
If they’re not willing to put some skin in the game, they’ll have no one but themselves to blame if we keep electing the adjutant general — and all of those other constitutional officers who ought to be appointed.