AFTER A QUIET start in office, Gov. Henry McMaster is suddenly full of surprises — or at least newsworthy pronouncements.
First, he announced he would veto an increase in the gas tax that he had convinced a lot of legislators he was going to allow to become law. And if lawmakers were determined to borrow money to pay for capital needs, he said, it had to be for roads, or else he would veto their bond bill too.
Then he announced that he supports a bill to reduce the amount of time citizens can halt work on construction projects with an “automatic stay.” That seemed an odd announcement, and not just because governors tend to be noncommittal about pending legislation unless it’s part of their agenda or they adamantly oppose it. Although Mr. McMaster is usually business friendly, he’s nearly always environmentally friendly, and defeating this legislation is a top agenda item for environmental groups.
The next day, the governor seemed to go out of his way to gratuitously announce that he supported the so-called constitutional carry bill. That bill name is designed to suggest that it simply gives us the rights we have in the Constitution — never mind that we wouldn’t need a law if those “rights” really existed — but in fact it eliminates the requirement that people learn when and where they can and can’t shoot and pass background checks before they can take their guns into public places.
Although there is some genuine Henry McMaster in every one of these positions — he does not like taxes, he does like the business community, and he is a friend of the gun lobby — his rapid-fire announcements looked for all the world like the calculated political positions of a man who has to win a Republican primary against a challenger we just learned is doing a very respectable job of raising money and spinning herself.
And I found myself asking the question I increasingly ask about the clients of political consultant Richard Quinn: Is this really what he wants to do, or is it what his campaign consultant has told him he ought to do? And after six consecutive elections together, and a decade of political work before that, is there any difference any more?
For me, the most worrisome aspect of the whole Quinn saga isn’t that Mr. Quinn might have helped Sen. John Courson launder money, as a State Grand Jury indictment against Mr. Courson alleges, or even that he might have done the same for other clients. If that happened, it clearly would be illegal, and we have a system in place to deal with illegal acts.
The most worrisome aspect of this is that Mr. Quinn could be running a massive matchmaking service that distorts public policy — yet could be completely legal.
For several years now, I’ve been struck by how the “teams” at the State House have changed: With ever fewer members of the Democratic team, the split is increasingly between the Republican lawmakers who are clients of competing political consultants.
Team members tend to use the same campaign techniques, focus on the same campaign issues and take the same positions on those issues, and not always because that’s what they want to do.
Over the years, I’ve had more than one candidate admit to me that they had reluctantly signed a pledge or took some position they now regretted because Mr. Quinn told them they needed to do that if they wanted to win.
(It’s worth recalling that Mr. McMaster wasn’t even thinking about running for attorney general in 2002 until Mr. Quinn’s candidate in that race, then-Sen. John Hawkins, was forced to pull out less than a month before the filing deadline — making it look like it was the consultant recruiting his candidate rather than the candidate hiring his consultant.)
And the influence doesn’t end once the candidate is in office. When new issues come up after the election, all the clients of a particular consultant tend to take the same positions, often explaining them with the same arguments.
If you like cliches, you’d call it the tail wagging the dog.
And here’s where this becomes so worrisome: On the one hand, Mr. Quinn is advising his huge stable of elected officials on the positions that will keep them in office. On the other, he is developing the arguments that his huge stable of business and governmental clients use to get the governmental decisions they want. Governmental decisions that are made by Mr. Quinn’s political clients.
It would probably be illegal to pay your consultant to promote your agenda to his political clients, and illegal for him to do that for pay. But if he’s simply convinced that it’s a popular position — and why wouldn’t it be, since he developed it? — it wouldn’t be illegal for him to tell his political clients that’s the smartest position to take.
It would be a clear case of political corruption, but I’m not sure there’s a way we could make it illegal.
And given how protective the U.S. Supreme Court has become of the privacy of those who spend their money to influence our government, I’m not even certain we could force anyone to disclose those webs of conflicts. But we certainly need to try.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.