Elizabeth Colbert Busch vs. the Cardboard Nancy Pelosi Cut-Out

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
May 5 2013 6:03 PM

Elizabeth Colbert Busch vs. the Cardboard Nancy Pelosi Cut-Out

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CHARLESTON, S.C.—Last month, Mark Sanford invited the media to watch him "debate" a cardboard stand-up of Nancy Pelosi. It was universally mocked by the press because 1) it looked ridiculous and 2) portraying Elizabeth Colbert Busch as a Pelosi manquée when this election won't actually elevate her to speaker is a tough bit of voter hypnosis.

But it didn't exactly fail. To the annoyance of Democrats here, the fear that elevating Colbert Busch will mean a victory for Pelosi and the Democrats has helped Sanford close what had been a public polling gap. Public Policy Polling, which recorded a 9-point ECB lead after Sanford's nadir (his ex-wife's complaint against him), now says Sanford's regained momentum and that his approval in the district is higher than Pelosi's or Barack Obama's. (The last two facts aren't surprising.) ECB started her Sunday campaign appearances with a short speech outside the James W. Colbert Education Center, named for her father, and was joined by third-ranking House Democrat Rep. James Clyburn (the center is in Clyburn's district). Sanford's spokesman Joel Sawyer emailed reporters before the event, egging them on to ask ECB about the fiendish House Dems.

"Can she name a SINGLE VOTE over the past few years where she would have differed with Clyburn," asked Sawyer, "or a single policy area where she disagrees with him now?"

He didn't need to prod because this was obviously the question that could trip up the candidate. (Also, given the timing of the email—right as the presser started, in heavy rain—I don't think any reporters noticed it.) After the remarks, Chris Moody of Yahoo! asked Clyburn if he worried Colbert Busch would have to separate herself from the party if she won.

"There are times when I agree with the Democrats, and there are times when I agree with the Republicans," said Clyburn. "Lindsey Graham and I have a good relationship because we think of South Carolina first. She'll do the same thing."

After the rain-soaked event was over, Clyburn stuck around to answer versions of the same question from me and BuzzFeed's Kate Nocera. He compared ECB to 2009 Democratic candidate Bill Owens, who won a fluke special election victory (helped by a GOP/Conservative Party meltdown pretty unique to New York).

"There are times when there are votes I ask for that I can't get from him," said Clyburn. "We tell everybody: First, vote your district, think of your constituents."

When I asked Clyburn if his presence there contradicted that, he quoted the subtitle of his memoir: He was "proudly black and genuinely Southern," and didn't need to answer for anyone else.

"I'm a member of the leadership, and I'm a South Carolinian. My family goes back 300 years. I don't want anybody to tell me I'm not a South Carolinian."

So, why was Sanford getting mileage out of hitting Pelosi?

"Because he's sophomoric in everything he does," said Clyburn.

Colbert Busch was still near the center, taking questions from local media, so the D.C. reporter throng bugged her again about ... well, about D.C. What did she disagree with Clyburn about?

"Let's get to May 7," she said. "Let's get elected, then we'll sit down and collaborate with each other. Everybody's already aware that I've had a respectful disagreement with President Obama's budget. It needs to get the nation's fiscal house in order more strongly."

Nocera asked whether Colbert Busch would take a chance to prove that, and vote for the House GOP's 36th Obamacare repeal bill, coming up next week.

"Obamacare, the Affordable Care Act—it is so problematic," said Colbert Busch, more or less repeating an answer she'd given in the race's sole debate. "To have lawmakers having discussions about exempting themselves? We've got a problem."

But would she vote for repeal? "I have to see the bill," she said. It's usually one page, I said. "Let's get elected on May 7, and let's go from there. When they bring it to the desk, we'll go from there."

The irony here is that an "Obamacare repeal" vote in the House will be a toothless process vote. Some conservative Democrats support these votes in order to look independent, knowing that they get Congress no closer to actual repeal than, say, coughing "BULLS**T" when Kathleen Sebelius talks. Half a dozen Democrats didn't vote for Pelosi for speaker this year, and Democrats didn't really care—whatever they needed to do to look conservative back home.

Sanford's goal, though, is to raise the specter of an entrenched Democratic member of Congress who, when the time comes, may—just may—go the other way.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.