Political Animal


April 24, 2013 11:48 AM Just How Desperate Is Mark Sanford?

By Ed Kilgore

Anyone with a passing familiarity with American politics is also familiar with the debating-an-empty-chair ploy, beloved by doomed and/or underfunded candidates whose opponents refuse to give them a chance to recover via frequent public debates. According to Safire’s Political Dictionary, the strategem was first devised by 1924 Progressive Party vice-presidential candidate Burton K. Wheeler, who “debated” an empty chair representing Calvin Coolidge at an Iowa campaign appearance. It’s been used sporadically ever since, culminating most recently, of course, in its bizarre performance by Clint Eastwood at the 2012 Republican National Convention.

Well, in a sign that his campaign is in even worse trouble than we thought, the Republican candidate for Congress in South Carolina’s 1st District special election, Mark Sanford, is revising the old stunt by debating a poster—not of his opponent, Elizabeth Colbert Busch (who has agreed to debate Sanford on April 27), but of House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi. Here’s how the Charleston Post and Courier describes his gambit:

Republican Mark Sanford “debated” a poster of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi today as a means of calling out opponent Elizabeth Colbert Busch for not debating him in the 1st Congressional District race….
The Pelosi photographed poster cut-out stood about 5 feet tall. Sanford said a vote for Colbert Busch would also be a vote for Pelosi, the former House leader.

Busch, meanwhile, was spending a good part of the day meeting with a group of Republicans backing her candidacy.

Sanford would probably do better by debating (or groveling before) a blown-up photo of his ex-wife, Jenny, who is likely deriving grim satisfaction from watching the man who has serially humiliated her being reduced to such a pathetic state.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • sgetti on April 24, 2013 12:00 PM:

    It will be interesting and perhaps somewhat illuminating as to how many South Carolinians in that district will vote for Sanford if reasonable people view him as such damaged goods. Put it this way, if it's not a landslide win for Busch, then conservative voters will display the tribal mentality of their party even if it's not in their best interests.

  • c u n d gulag on April 24, 2013 12:00 PM:

    Any truth to the rumour that he's going to debate a cardboard cut-out of The Frito Bandito on immigration reform later on in the week?

  • collin on April 24, 2013 12:13 PM:

    I think the empty chair in 1924 said more than Coolidge said during his Presidency.

  • Bert Fershner on April 24, 2013 12:22 PM:

    Hey, the guy thinks that the Appalachian trail runs through Argentina. Maybe he thinks Pelosi represents part of South Carolina. Carolina, California, it's all so confusing.

  • Bokonon on April 24, 2013 12:27 PM:

    That's a pathetic stunt. But Sanford is counting on the knee-jerk reaction that a lot of South Carolinians have when you yell "Nancy Pelosi!" Classic diversionary tactic. But he knows his voters.

    It is like shouting "fire in a crowded theater ... or shouting "movie" in a crowded firehouse ... or something like that.

  • jim filyaw on April 24, 2013 12:29 PM:

    debating an empty chair is bad enough, but i've heard it on good authority the chair won. (alas, it wasn't good enough to change minds in the palmetto state).

  • Matt on April 24, 2013 12:55 PM:

    I thought that only worked if there was an actual debate to show up at? The pictures have Sanford outside on a sidewalk, with music stands propped up in front of him and "Busch." Not only is it a stunt, it's a stunt with incredibly poor production values. The pictures convey absolutely nothing that says "my opponent refuses to debate me," which is the only point of doing that.

    Busch, meanwhile, was spending a good part of the day meeting with a group of Republicans backing her candidacy.

    If that's even remotely true (i.e., if these "Republicans" are not actually 100% non-Republicans in any meaningful sense of the word, a la "Democrats for Gingrich") then that's the best evidence I've seen so far that she's going to win this. There was theoretically enough time for the whole trespassing thing to blow over and for that 9% lead to evaporate, but if she's actually winning genuine Republicans, game over.

  • Sgt. Gym Bunny on April 24, 2013 12:56 PM:

    Did he also draw a Hitler mustache on "2-D Pelosi" with a magic marker? If he didn't, he totally just wasted his breath. His debate would have been practically incomprehensible to the tea-folk without such a valuable visual cue. The real clincher!!!

  • Matt on April 24, 2013 1:02 PM:

    Oops, I meant in front of him and "Pelosi." Which just makes the message even more muddled. I mean, yeah, yeah, Nancy Pelosi is the go-to bogeywoman for your negative Republican congressional campaign ads, but... ugh, what a mess.

    In all seriousness, wasn't Sanford regarded as a pretty skilled politician at some point? I don't care how many of your staff have abandoned ship, or how few good political strategists you could lure on board in the first place--shouldn't he at least know better? It's one thing to throw a Hail Mary, but this is just punting the ball into the stands.

  • jjdaddyo on April 24, 2013 1:05 PM:

    I think the stars have aligned close enough to make Colbert-Busch a one-term congressperson from that district.
    If disgust and apathy about Sanford can make Repubs stay away from the polls (because an SC Repub would sooner turn his guns over to the UN than vote Democrat for ANYBODY) and C-B can turn out enough Democrats for a special election, then she can win this one.
    But even if C-B turns out to be a right-leaning DINO (like Barrow) the Repubs will win next time with an ARWAP (Any Republican With A Pulse.)

  • martin on April 24, 2013 1:07 PM:

    I bet the poster won.

    yorkform anatomy says Captcha

  • collin on April 24, 2013 1:20 PM:

    Ed Shame on you. Your writing normally does justice for these ridiculous stunts but he is debating Pelosi' poster in some random SC suburban street! Couldn't they have at rented a hotel auditorium room and presented at some look of a debate? Had an audience? Not had somebody standing behind the poster? It looks beyond pathetic and even a student running Class Treasurer would do better than this.

  • June on April 24, 2013 1:26 PM:

    I probably shouldn't say this, but with Sanford's spectacularly bad judgment, it wouldn't surprise me if his fiance started having second thoughts about going through with the marriage. Something's very wrong with this guy.

  • Kathry on April 24, 2013 1:26 PM:

    @jjdaddyo.....probably correct as Colbert Busch will have to run again in 2014 but still maybe her constituent service and charm will get her re-elected, long shot for sure. I believe Kathy
    Hoschul in upstate N.Y. was defeated after winning a conservative district and serving one year, for example.

    People believe that Mrs. Sanford was the brains and political force in Sanford family, which seems accurate. After that moony impromptu press conference when he returned from Argentina in front of gaping, laughing tourists, how can anybody take Mark Sanford seriously on any front? He's a walking ego, who reportedly called Jenny Sanford after that display to ask her how he did.

  • Buddy on April 24, 2013 3:29 PM:

    Dirty Harry didn't debate the chair; he scolded the chair.

  • john sherman on April 24, 2013 4:31 PM:

    Even given Republican misogyny, the power of Nancy Pelosi as an icon of evil is amazing. Anybody watching the campaign ads in the house elections in states like North and South Dakota would have assumed she was on the ballot, and I suppose this is another example. I doubt that if she had been male, the Republicans would still use her as a boogeyperson, would that be.