South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford sees a strong future for the Republican Party, provided it's rebuilt in what he sees as the right way: on the local level, far from the halls of Congress and the GOP's national headquarters. Republican ideals haven't changed, he said last week, but he thinks the ways the party engages new people will have to. NEWSWEEK's Daniel Stone asked Sanford who's responsible to lead the party from here and what he thinks about the party's national leadership. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: In devising a new strategy for the party, where do you go from here?
SANFORD: There is an eternal tug of war within the party on where we go from here and how we find a way out. One camp says the key is to appeal to Hispanics and women and use technology more. The way out of the wilderness is to grow the tent. The other camp—and the one I fall in—says that you can build a big tent, but you have to make sure the poles can hold it up and that you're working from a good foundation. In many ways, a political party is nothing more than a brand. The great brands of time have succeeded in as much is that they've done what they say they're going to do. People buy a John Deere tractor because it does what it says they're going to do.
Who's responsible for crafting that image of what the party is supposed to do and turning around and selling it to people?
From a tactical standpoint, it's got to be Republican governors. The minority in Congress can try to impede policy, but that's very difficult. In these economic times, people want changes that will make a difference in their lives. I think that the way out of the wilderness will be getting back to the core and getting policies implemented that will be instrumental in people's lives. And I think for that, Republican governors will be particularly important.
Is that to say governors should be the new party leaders?
Well, if you're a conservative, you believe in federalism. You believe in the power of the individual. You don't believe in orders from on high and centralized planning. There is something wrong if we were to just say someone was going to be the leader of our party from here forward. [President George H.W.] Bush talked about "a thousand points of light" in the party. I think there will be another thousand points of light to return the party to its roots to get us back in power. Tip O'Neill said all politics is local. Folks at the local county and city level will be making a difference.
How do you engage those local people and create a relationship with the national party?
I think we learned that we don't want one crystallized message with one crystallized leader. You don't want to have one voice. You need me speaking in South Carolina about things I believe in, but right next door is Sonny Purdue talking about things he believes in. And around the corner to Alabama, and continue the process across the country.
The party still has public leadership heads in Washington. Do you endorse the strategy chairman Steele has been talking about?
The chairman? Well, look, I think we're all pushing toward less government, lower taxes, a more competitive economic playing field and more individual freedom. We're just pushing from different perspectives.
What do you think of the "rising star" label that some of your colleagues have bestowed on you?
[Laughs] You know, that's very flattering and kind, but I can't be focused on that.