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Warthen: The boy who cried ‘big government’

ON NOV. 15 on the opinion pages of The Wall Street Journal, Gov. Mark Sanford took a courageous stand. Just ask him, he’ll tell you.

The piece started out with the customary tone of self-congratulatory righteousness that is one of the principal reasons the leaders of his own party in the S.C. State House hate to see him coming:

I find myself in a lonely position. While many states and local governments are lining up for a bailout from Congress, I went to Washington recently to oppose such bailouts. I may be the only governor to do so.

So is the image etched sharply enough in your mind’s eye yet? He is Horatio at the bridge, holding back the invaders. He is the boy on the burning deck, “whence all but he had fled.” The big-government barbarians are at the gate, and only he stands against them, the double-edged sword of free markets gripped tightly in his unwavering hand.

Thank God for Mark Sanford, we are to think, as we read on:

But I suspect I’m not entirely alone, as there are a lot of taxpayers who aren’t pleased with Christmas coming early for politicians. ...

And therein lies the key. He’s not alone, and he knows it. He’s striking a pose before a crowd. This has worked well for him. It got him re-elected in 2006. Despite the fact that he had alienated most people who actually had to deal with him in the course of trying to govern our poor state, he managed to strike all the right attitudes to persuade a majority of voters that he was their tribune, and only he could keep the “politicians” (which reminds me, when was the last time you saw this guy working in the private sector?) from robbing you blind. (Of course, it also helped that the Democrats nominated Tommy Moore.)

This image has resonated with a lot of folks outside South Carolina as well. The Club for Growth, for instance, and Howard Rich. The folks who edit the editorial pages of The Journal are thoroughly enchanted; they’re the ones who kept alive the idea that our governor would be John McCain’s running mate long after it had been dismissed by everyone else. (Maybe he should have picked Mr. Sanford, you may be thinking at this point. Not at all. Mr. Sanford appeals to a narrower sliver of the GOP base — economic libertarians — than the red-meat, populist slice that loved Sarah Palin.)

The very day that his op-ed piece was in The Journal, we also read that Mr. Sanford had been chosen to chair the Republican Governors’ Association. So they’re sold.

Mark Sanford calls the idea of federal aid for his state — a proposal I had not even heard about before he was posturing against it — “Christmas coming early for politicians.” As if any spending from Washington went into the pockets of anyone who thought South Carolina might need the help. He says that while his own prisons chief, Jon Ozmint (one of the most conservative men you’ll ever want to meet) is talking about releasing prisoners early because he doesn’t have the money to keep them behind bars — despite the fact that South Carolina spends less per prisoner than any other state.

I know Jon Ozmint; he doesn’t want the money for himself.

Now at this point all you libertarians out there have decided I’m sticking up for big spending. You’re mistaken. I don’t know whether the federal government should help out the states or not. Seems to me the feds have a lot on their plates, and they’ve already done more bailing out (mostly in the vaunted private sector, mind you — you know, the depository of fiscal wisdom and responsibility) than I ever wanted to see.

The same day that op-ed piece ran, I read in The State that the federal government had spent money to open a grocery store and a bank in the Celia Saxon neighborhood of Columbia. I looked at all of those politicians cutting that ribbon, and I wondered whether that federal investment was a good idea. I understand the need: The lack of viable retail businesses in a neighborhood contributes to a host of social ills — or at least, occurs in tandem with such ills. But, I wondered, if it took federal money to set them up, can the businesses be viable? I hope so, because the neighborhood could use the shot in the arm. But will it work?

That’s how I look at such spending: Will it work? Will the investment — in prison guards, or schools, or Wall Street, or a grocery store — pay off, and have the intended beneficial effect on the community or the state or the nation?

Are there some politicians who will always say “yes” to the spending? You betcha, as another governor would say. But I wouldn’t look to those politicians to help me figure out whether spending is wise or not in a given instance.

Nor would I ask Mark Sanford, because he’s just as predictable. Maybe more federal largesse flowing to our cash-strapped state would be a good idea, and maybe it wouldn’t be. But in trying to figure that out, the last person I’m going to ask is our governor. He’s not the boy who stood on the burning deck in the iconic Victorian poem. He’s the boy from the Aesop fable — the one who cried “big government” so many times that when government finally did go too far, you couldn’t tell by him.

Read the Sanford column and more at