For the first year after the Democrats took over the U.S. House in 2006, I had to remind myself every time I heard a reference to Nancy Pelosi that she wasn't just a fringe figure but someone who actually had power now. It took three months before I had internalized the fact that the president was no longer a Republican.
The idea that Democrats could be in charge of anything is simply too unfathomable to keep front of mind when you live and breathe state politics in a state where a Democrat has captured the governor's mansion only once in the past 24 years — and then only because he was bankrolled by the gambling industry; a state where the closest we get to serious partisan battles is between the two wings of the GOP.
Most South Carolinians have just the opposite problem, because they see the world through Washington-colored glasses. Fed a 24-7 diet of Potomac partisanship, they know more about the latest scandal to hit the Congress than the Legislature, are more accustomed to the president's syntax than the governor's. For anyone surviving on this toxic diet, but especially those who feel besieged by the wave of socialism they believe is sweeping our nation, it's a challenge to remember that South Carolina is a political world apart. That in the unlikely event that a Democrat were elected governor again, he'd still have a solidly Republican, anti-tax Legislature to determine the fate of all of his ideas.
The nationalization of state politics has long affected how voters think about politics, and how our politicians perform, pushing everyone to waste time and energy fixating on the culture wars and federal tax policy and other things that the government of South Carolina has no control over. This is why the state Republican Party apparatchiki are demanding to know Sen. Vincent Sheheen's position on the federal health law. (At least we don't hear such irrelevancies much from Democrats — because they know their national party's positions are poison here.)
But our politics are no longer skewed merely by the fact that South Carolinians have discovered the national media. Now the national media have discovered South Carolina. Between the Luv Gov and the unseemly allegations about his protege and our "You lie" congressman and action hero Alvin Greene and the insistence of presidential wannabes on insinuating themselves into our state elections (remember when presidential candidates tried to get S.C. officials to endorse them, rather than the other way around?), it's as easy on any given day to find coverage of S.C. politics in the national media as in the S.C. media.
The unsettling upshot of those two phenomena is that for the first time ever, what South Carolinians think and even know about their candidates for governor is just as likely to come from outside the state as from within.
It's hard to imagine that anything good could come from having all the ideologues of cable TV and the Internet dissecting and prognosticating our gubernatorial race — or much of anything else, for that matter. But even the mainstream media's attempted objective reporting has a distorting effect.
When it's your job to cover a campaign every day, you go out every day looking for a new story. When you're sent out of state to do a story, you already know what the story is; you just look for people to say the things you need them to say. It's usually not deliberate manipulation; it's just survival. Whether at The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal, CBS News or National Review, an editor is not going to tell a reporter: "I hear there's an election in South Carolina; why don't you go find out about it?" Rather, it's: "There's an Indian-American woman who's going to be the next governor in South Carolina. Go find out how excited people are about her." Or "Go find out how in the world those yokels could be so open-minded and inclusive and diverse." And you get the same simplistic story over and over: beautiful, telegenic, inspirational Nikki Haley, fighting the mossbacks to become the new face of the Republican Party.
The national media's obsession over finding deeper meaning in the accidental nomination of Alvin Greene wouldn't matter at all, since it never mattered whom the Democrats nominated to lose to U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, but for the fact that it creates a critical mass. It gives them yet another reason to keep fixating on our state. Just when they get tired of fawning over Rep. Haley, the Alvin action figures pull them back to South Carolina, and while they're here, hey, let's talk about that cool Indian-American woman again!
A year ago, the national media simply could not comprehend that there could be anything worse than an AWOL love-sick puppy in the Governor's Mansion. Today, it doesn't even occur to them that South Carolinians could have any qualms with that fabulous woman they've already inaugurated as his replacement — let alone any reason to support her opponent. (She has an opponent?) And as we continue to feed on their spoon-fed diet, their vision becomes our reality.