Thursday, January 12, 2012

Mark Sanford knocks Nikki Haley: "Lost her focus"

In a freshly-minted item published in the conservative National Review -- William F. Buckley's old magazine -- by Wall Street Journal editor John Fund, former Governor Mark Sanford expresses a strange thought about his protege, Nikki Haley: “She’s taken her eye off the ball and lost focus.”

What's strange isn't the substance of Sanford's opinion; Haley has certainly been all over the map -- including Paris, though not yet to Argentina -- since taking possession of the Governor's mansion. What's strange is that Sanford voiced his opinion aloud, and in the context of Fund's topic, Haley's endorsement of Mitt Romney's presidential candidacy.

One of the aces that Mitt Romney believes he holds in the Palmetto State is the endorsement of Nikki Haley, the new 39-year-old governor who rocketed to political stardom last year by challenging the good-ol’-boy political network in the state. Fueled by endorsements from both Sarah Palin and Romney, Haley was able to marshal tea-party support to crush a sitting attorney general, a sitting congressman, and the state’s lieutenant governor, winning the GOP nomination and then the general election.

It was classic political Cinderella theater, with the story of the state’s first governor from a minority group (Haley is Indian-American) taking place on the 150th anniversary of its secession from the union and providing a powerful symbol of just how far the South has progressed. But one year after she was sworn in, enough of the luster has worn off that former governor Mark Sanford, her immediate predecessor and political mentor, is discouraged. “I wonder if she’ll be more of a liability to Romney than she is an asset,” he told me.

Fund brings baggage of his own to his work; he was a pioneer in the Libertarian Party in California in the 1970s, which might explain his affinity with Libertarian-leaning Sanford. And, like Sanford, Fund's baggage includes some unfortunate personal choices.

Still, Fund's critique includes some objective data:

Haley certainly has seen her approval ratings slump since being sworn in, although just how much is a point of dispute. According to a December Winthrop University poll, the governor’s approval rating is 35 percent, with only a little more than half of Republicans giving her a thumbs-up. Since every statewide official in South Carolina is a Republican, the GOP controls the legislature, and Republicans have a seven-to-one advantage in the congressional delegation, the Winthrop survey rang alarm bells everywhere.

The governor punched back. Appearing on NBC’s Meet the Press, she dismissed this “local poll” because it also showed that President Obama would today win South Carolina, which would be a bizarre result since he lost the state by 9 percentage points in 2008.

But the poll in question didn’t test President Obama’s general-election prospects in South Carolina, only his statewide approval rating. This came in at 45 percent — higher than Haley’s. The governor’s office was forced to admit she had misspoken.

“She sure didn’t have a problem with this ‘local poll’ when we correctly predicted her gubernatorial victory in 2010,” Scott Huffmon, the director of the Winthrop poll, commented, noting that his survey predicted Haley’s defeat of Democrat Vincent Sheheen in the general election. Nonetheless, Team Haley has a point when arguing that the survey is somewhat suspect. “I have consistently found a durable ten-point Republican-party affiliation edge in South Carolina elections,” says Haley strategist Jon Lerner. “The Winthrop poll surveyed 3.6 percent more Democrats than Republicans, so there was an inaccurate partisan weighing.”

That appears correct, but fixing it would still leave the governor with an approval rating only in the 40s, which is what recent private polls I was shown all pegged her at. A Public Policy Polling survey in September had her at 41 percent approval.

Seems self-evident that South Carolinians regret their choice last Election Day. Surely South Carolina's public schoolchildren regret it, as they're well into a second decade without an advocate in the top office. But it's shocking to hear one of Sanford's surrogates say it so bluntly, as his former communications man, Chris Drummond, did:

"I regret my efforts to help her get elected,” Drummond told me.

And Ashley Landess, who leads the South Carolina Policy Council, another old Sanford support team, didn't hold back:

“Nikki agreed with us that there is a great disconnect between the people and the governing elites in South Carolina,” Ashley Landess told me. “We have an electorate that mostly supports small government, but most of the legislative leaders are slavish supporters of corporate welfare who think they are the conduit to prosperity.” She says that, far from breaking up that system, the governor has increasingly coddled it.

Haley, coddler of corporate elites. It has a ring.

As for her signature issue, transparency in government? Fund found a gem of a quote:

Columnist Isaac Bailey of the Myrtle Beach Sun News concludes that “she’s done just about everything to make it impossible for the public to know what she is doing and why, even going out of her way to hide or delete emails or using personal accounts to dodge open document requirements.”

No pulling punches here.

Fund's summary assessment after talking with Sanford? Haley is "just another politician."

Many of Haley’s original supporters say they understand she entered office without executive experience, and they expected some rocky moments. But they say hiring a very young staff known more for its loyalty than its competence has compounded her problems. Mark Sanford has an edge of sadness in his voice when discussing her first year with me: “She’s on the cover of national magazines, her book will be out in April — I think it can be confusing, and all this has led her to punt on some of the really big issues she ran on.”

Nikki Haley remains a political superstar in national Republican circles, and her charm and fighting spirit are undeniable. But it’s increasingly clear that many of the people who elected her are worried that because of either national distractions or an unwillingness to fully confront the power structure she ran against, she is becoming what last year she said she loathed — just another politician.

What can it mean that a pre-eminent arch-conservative journal is sharpening its talons on one of its own progeny? Is the bloom forever off Haley's rose?

Or, could Haley salvage her term in office by rejecting her elitist tendencies and advocating for South Carolina's children?

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