…by Meg White
The place Meg puts the stuff she wrote
Gov. Sanford and the Stimulus: A Case Study in How Throwing Temper Tantrums Works, At Least for Republicans
Categories: Commentary, Politics

by Meg White

It seems like everyone’s falling all over themselves recently to proclaim a victory in the Govs. v. Prez stimulus battle that’s been raging for weeks now. South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford was the last in a group of Republican governors, most notably including Sarah Palin and Bobby Jindal, to accept funds from President Obama’s stimulus package when he announced his willingness to play ball (sort of) on Thursday.

But the fact that everyone’s heading to the bank with stimulus checks doesn’t make this a win-win for the administration, nor does it make it a lose-lose for the GOP. Not to go all Joseph Stiglitz on you, but it seems more like a win-win (lose): struggling states win some much-needed relief and Republicans get to win while they look like their losing, and everyone likes a perceived underdog.

Sam Stein wrote for Huffington Post last week that “high-ranking Republican strategists are giving the party’s rising stars — including Govs. Sarah Palin, Bobby Jindal and Mark Sanford — a pass.” GOP strategists are rallying behind the Republican governors that flirted with rejecting the stimulus funds. Of course they are, Sam. They don’t call ‘em “strategists” for nothing! Why slam your “rising stars” when you have so few?

Plus, if they’re going to slam them for something, it won’t be hypocrisy. The party virtually has a hypocritical oath upon joining up.  How do you think BuzzFlash is able to keep you supplied with “GOP Hypocrite” award winners every week?

Stein also announced that the White House was triumphant in the battle against Sanford, saying, “it is clear that the governor lost his showdown with the White House.” Not so fast. I’d say if there are any winners here (besides those who get to keep their jobs because their governor won’t have to chop their state’s budget any further, thanks to the stimulus money), it’s the governors themselves, especially Sanford.

Maybe it’s because he doesn’t have any crazy relatives getting arrested or denouncing him on national television. Maybe it’s because he doesn’t have natural disasters blowing up in his two faces. Sanford was the last governor to acquiesce to the new spending requirements, and I’d bet it’s because he’s been looking pretty good this whole time.

It was obvious from the very beginning that these governors would have to take the money. South Carolina, with an unemployment rate second only to Michigan, was in especially dire need. One South Carolina state representative told the Associated Press that without the stimulus funds “teachers would lose jobs, prisons would be closed, and inmates released early.”

No governor would let that happen. Not only would it be destructive to the functioning of the state itself, but it would make the stimulus money look important and necessary across the nation, if only by comparison. If South Carolina were the only state to reject stimulus money, it would have to be on its best behavior for the foreseeable future and be pretty much the first state to shake off the recession.

Nope. Better to just hope Obama’s policies fail on their own than take the chance that your own ideas might fall flat, too.

Furthermore, Sanford is using the small percentage of the stimulus money he actually has control over as leverage over the state legislature. He said he’ll only accept the funds for education if state lawmakers agreed to spend a similar amount of money on paying down state debt.

Some might ask whether Sanford looks like a hypocrite after raising a huge fuss and then just taking the money in the end. The problem with this type of hypocrisy is that it is highly nuanced. There’s something about fiscal policy that switches most voters’ critical thinking skills to the “off” position. When you throw the word “bailout” in the mix, as Sanford did in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, the fatigue becomes politically insurmountable.

In the end, Sanford comes out looking like a pragmatist who tried to negotiate a third way, but got steamrolled by Congress and the White House.  Not a bad position for a guy setting up his run in 2012.

A New York Times article this weekend pointed out that, while Democrats are quick to suppose that this fight makes Sanford look bad, that might be a spurious conclusion:

Still, it is not clear how much capital Mr. Sanford’s position has really cost him in the state. South Carolinians like their politicians with an independent streak.

Keven Cohen, a conservative radio show host in Columbia, said that although most of his listeners believed Mr. Sanford should take the money, they respected what they viewed as his principled stand against the stimulus.

Granted, the latest opinion poll puts Sanford’s approval rating at around 40 percent. However, the latest poll was conducted on behalf of the South Carolina Senate Democratic Caucus, so 40 percent really isn’t all that bad.

In Sanford’s near future, those people won’t even count. According to David Weigel at The Washington Independent, “In the ongoing debate over the economic stimulus package, South Carolina Republican Gov. Mark Sanford has made all the right enemies… Sanford’s public battle with the White House has won him support with a more important group of people: the Republicans who will pick their next standard-bearer in 2012.”

As anyone who’s ever watched a primary season go by knows moderation and teamwork don’t play well before the general election season. Looking ahead, it’s a fair guess that Republicans will hoist only ideologues on their collective shoulders. After McCain was unable to rally the base as the choice in 2008, there’s no doubt in my mind that 2012 will be a high-contrast event.

Despite all the talk about how difficult times have for Republicans been since the election, transitioning to the minority has been relatively easy for them. Maybe it was the warm up they got with the Congressional turnover in 2006. Or maybe it’s just their party’s talent for assigning blame.

Of course, the recession would make it easy for any party to emerge on top after an underdog period. The recession has already been painful, and it will continue to be for the foreseeable future. Even if the recovery is already underway, Republicans will find a way to blame the economic crisis on progressive values and action.


Originally published at BuzzFlash.com.

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