Two Roads Diverged
Running the State v. Running for President
“How do you lose a governor?”
I’ve been asked that question, and I’ve asked myself that question more times than I care to admit. If you survive a disaster, you’re given all the time in the world to replay every moment leading up to it and second-guess everything.
In early 2008, I became Sanford’s fourth (more if you count the times I quit and unquit) and last Chief of Staff. Those three years were almost equally divided between the rise of Mark Sanford’s presidential ambitions and cleaning the wreckage of the infamous hike on the Appalachian Trail. As I’ve written before, I didn’t even want the damn job.
Somewhere in the first half, Sanford and I took two different roads. He was running for President, and I was running the state. It created conflict, mistrust, and ultimately, a divide that meant keeping secrets from each other. It turns out his were more significant than mine and would lead to the story of how “hiking the Appalachian Trail” became a punchline.
Setting the Stage
When Sanford took office in 2003, legislators and commentators would suggest his speech or policies were building a presidential campaign. I learned in politics if you make a prediction long enough, it’ll become a reality. His first term was about “shocking the system” to push reforms. Ambition has a way of ruining the purity of policy and derailing political careers. As the “policy guy” in the first term, I guarded against that talk to stay on task. We had our moments.
The 2006 elections were brutal for Republicans as Democrats rode George Bush’s “six-year itch” mid-terms to dominance. Democrats picked up majorities in the U.S. House and Senate, took a majority of governor’s races, and picked up 300 legislative seats around the country. Sanford easily won reelection despite this wave by a wider margin than his 2002 win; South Carolina Republicans won all but one statewide elected office (with the State Superintendent winning by a razor-thin margin) and managed to add one seat in the state House of Representatives. We didn’t hold on; we defied the odds.
The “South Carolina Miracle” drew attention nationwide, raising the profile of Mark Sanford and South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Katon Dawson. The first to come knocking was the Republican Governors Association, the campaign wing dedicated to electing Republican governors. Governors had to earn the spot to chair the group, usually heading up the annual fundraising dinner first.
The timing was particularly fortunate. Sanford would chair the dinner in 2008 and could be elected chair of the RGA later that year based on the succession. In late 2006, it was easy to see the future. We’d mapped out a plan based on a Democrat winning the White House in 2008, just as Sanford would take over the RGA. He and I were obsessed with the business cycle and expected an economic downturn just as the 2008 election happened. Those two factors made the 2009 off-year gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia pickups for the Republicans.
Most of this was easy to map out, though I thought the Democrat would be Hillary Clinton, and we’d agreed the recession would be mild but prolonged. Both wrong.
I painted a picture of the Republican governor who beat back the 2006 Democratic tsunami, battled the White House on deficit spending in the middle of a recession, helped make gains in 2009 before leading the party back to the White House in 2012. It made for a compelling story, and I was ready to sign up. Then time marched on.
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What Did I Do!?
The role of the Chief of Staff is undefinable. You’re everything and nothing. The job ranges from chief strategist, staff manager, driving the process in the administration, and so much more. You have to accomplish all of this by making the governor the star and expecting very little in return. The job is a leap of faith that your reward comes when you leave. As long as you don’t screw up.
Mark Sanford often refers to me as “my left brain.” As his “policy guy,” my job was to argue with him, regardless of the position, and get him prepped for debates, press conferences, media hits, and speeches. He’d given me the job years earlier in Washington, and we enjoyed sparring over ideas ever since. I could cite and defend votes from his days in Congress, I was the last set of eyes on his veto messages, and shaped the administration's policies. It was a dream job for an idealistic conservative.
Sanford believed in the Socratic method, arguing out a position to get to the best possible outcome. This method was great for developing tax policy and pushing government reforms. It’s not great when you’re talking about personnel and time management.
My predecessor as Chief of Staff had weekly meetings with Sanford for what I called his “regularly-scheduled beating.” Sanford would roll out a list of grievances, and he even called in staff as special guests to pile on. The meetings would end with him coming back to our office, taking half a Xanax, and sighing into his palms for 20 minutes while it kicked in. Tom was earnest and likable - which played nicely with my “Dr. No” reputation. It made the job miserable for him, sandwiched between two madmen, but he did a good job.
When I took over, I had watched enough to know that listening to Sanford bitch was never going to get you anywhere. So I applied the same rules to management as I did to debating policy: take no prisoners. We argued. A lot. Each minor grievance got smaller, and my reactions got worse. I figured he’d either fire me or give up, and I didn’t care which one it was.
I’m sure in his eyes, I was a short-fused asshole who rationalized every decision, even if it was wrong. That’s not an unfair description. We needed each other and started to hate being around each other. Not the healthiest relationship for a Governor and his Chief of Staff - but it worked. For a while.
By June 2008, Sanford and I had to travel to an RGA event in Charleston, South Carolina. He asked me to ride with him, and when we got to the car, he asked me to sit in the back. Typically, when Sanford travels, he wants his space. On planes, he’d spread papers out around him, so you’d have to sit somewhere else. So when he asked me to ride in the back, I thought I was getting fired.
We talked business first. An execution was scheduled for the following day, and we expected an appeal to slow things down.This went on for a bit before he put everything down and looked at me. I was prepared for the talk and being left on the side of the road to find my way back to Columbia.
“So McCain’s going to get the nomination.” he started. This was a foregone conclusion.
“Yeah.” I wasn’t sure where this was going.
“They’re going to vet me for Vice President. They’re already poking around.”
As early as February, he was getting questions from the media about the Veep nod, so this wasn’t news.
“Don’t do it!” I said it so quickly it surprised him.
“Look, you’d be a shitty number two. You’re not very good at carrying someone else’s message. I can’t see you defending his positions on Iraq or several other things. You’d do damage to your brand for a losing cause.” McCain was going to get the nomination, but we both knew he wouldn’t win.
“That’s interesting you say that. It’ll be hard to say no if I’m asked.”
“I get it. You’ll have to checkmate it before it gets to that point.”
Before I finish that story, let’s fast forward a few weeks.
In July 2008, Sanford went on CNN to talk about John McCain’s candidacy. Usually, just before a speech or a media hit, Sanford would call me. The conversation opened in an almost formulaic way.
“What’re we doing?” I had to know his schedule to take the call and answer that question.
“Three things….” Back in Congress, he’d read some story from Peggy Noonan about President Reagan needing three points for a speech. So I structured everything in threes, and he’d write them down on some random scrap of paper to remember. He gave those scraps to the press team to “reconstruct” for future use, often leaving them confused about what a bunch of random words on a piece of paper meant.
Before the interview, I called him to prep. “I’m good,” he replied. I tried to do it anyway, and he just said, “Don’t worry about it.” I later learned he’d already prepped with a “national guy” (Sanford’s words) who was more in tune with the race. I guess that the poor guy had no idea who he was dealing with.
During the interview, Wolf Blitzer asked Sanford to distinguish the economic policies of John McCain and George Bush. Sanford’s answer is remarkably bad. You can see for yourself. (Question starts at 0:33).
Sanford nudged himself further down the list of contenders. The interview hurt for the moment, but not forever, and would, in his mind, make sure he didn’t make the shortlist. We’d later learn that Sanford had other things on his mind, but this was a classic Sanford move of gentle self-destruction.
Back to the Conversation
Our conversation shifted from the 2008 elections to his future run for President.
I offered, “If you’re going to run in 2012, you need to run from the outside.”
He relaxed, “I’m glad you said that because I’ve been talking to some folks about that. They think I’d have a good shot at running in 2012.”
Sanford’s penchant for answer shopping and creating narratives is how we got this far. He had good instincts about where he wanted to end up, just not always sure how to get there.
I responded, “We’ve been setting the stage for that all along. You absolutely should run, and given where the economy will be; you’re a perfect ‘bad economic times’ candidate.”
“Well, I’m going to need help. You have all of this stuff in your head, and we’re going to need that.”
“Fuck no.” My apologies for the language, but that is exactly what I said, “A guy like me is supposed to cash out, raise money for you, and cheer from the sidelines. I got no interest in going to Iowa and New Hampshire in the dead of winter, not even for you.”
That was the sugarcoated version. I couldn’t tell Sanford that I was one of his first cheerleaders to run for Governor, but I’d had enough. Instead, the conversation was a divergence. Down one road, we needed to govern South Carolina; down the other, he needed to run for President. So both of us took our steps down the different roads. Little did we know those roads would reconnect in June 2009.
Sanford set out to build his national profile. He’d take speaking engagements around the country, getting in front of big donors to talk about the party's future. He’d started building infrastructure inside and outside the office. Inside, the SFP (Sanford for President) folks helped cement the wall between us. I ignored him and them as much as I could and stayed focused on South Carolina. He gave me free rein with a simple mission, “Keep me out of court and out of jail.”
I told him what I thought he needed to know, when we needed him, and kept the rest to myself. He lived in a separate world, enabled by people who wanted to rise with him, and we only talked when necessary. We both preferred being in the dark about the other as long as it didn’t interfere or make headlines. It’s incredibly dysfunctional in the rearview, but that didn’t matter to either of us at the moment.
Looking back on that conversation, I wish I’d done some things differently. Maybe if I’d told Sanford the journey from campaign to Chief of Staff had aged me, and I’d be lucky to make it to the finish line with my reputation and sanity. Maybe he would have understood I was on his team, but I needed a break. I barely slept then; I couldn’t imagine life on a national campaign or the White House. It’s hard to say now, so I’m left with replaying and second-guessing the moment.
Three days after that June 2008 conversation, Sanford left for South America, where he began the affair that ended his presidential ambitions. He would hold his tearful press conference a little more than a year later. By then, our divergent roads would come back together.
Court appeals delayed James Earl Reed’s execution by more than five hours on June 20, 2008 (worthy of its own writing). We had 13 executions while Sanford was Governor. By the time I left, I was opposed to the death penalty.
Two Roads Diverged is the name of Sanford’s 2021 book, which I wrote about in an earlier post. It appropriately describes where we were in 2008.
Quite interesting to get a genuine view from the inside. Glad you're outside now and giving it.
Scott, it looks to me as though you hitched your wagon to the wrong horse back in the day. Sanford might have been ok for a governorship, but he's certainly not presidential material. Kinda like Biden.