President Obama's stimulus plan has given Republicans their first significant political rift this year. The intraparty tug of war between moderate governors who supported the stimulus and those who opposed it has lined the party up into two camps -- one that puts fiscal conservatism above all else, and the other that's willing to compromise on fiscal issues in a time of crisis.
Is there any way to gauge just who's winning and who's losing the fight for the soul -- and direction -- of the party?
Republican strategists interviewed last week (subscription) by the Hotline saw voting against the stimulus package in Congress as a win-win situation for lawmakers. By drawing a "line in the sand," pollster Brian Tringali said, the party finally gets back to its fiscally conservative roots. And if the economy turns around, well, everyone's happy. As GOP strategist Jon Lerner told Hotline, "It's tougher to defend a vote for something that turns out badly than a vote against something that turns out well."
Will the economic stimulus money become to Republicans what the Iraq war was for Democrats?
That may be true for House/Senate members who voted against the bill, but what does it mean to actually turn down that money, as a number of Republican governors have proposed?
An obvious test of a policy's political effects is its impact on the electoral prospects of those who supported or opposed it. Yet the reality is that most of the governors who have refused -- or are at least publicly mulling sending back -- some portion of the stimulus funds won't have to face voters in 2010. Govs. Sonny Perdue of Georgia, Bob Riley of Alabama and Mark Sanford of South Carolina are termed out next year. Mississippi's Haley Barbour can't run again in 2011. It's easy to stand on principle when you take re-election out of the equation.
It does, however, put those Republicans who hope to succeed them in an interesting bind. We're likely to see intraparty division continue in these states, pitting those who want to follow in the footsteps of the stimulus-bashers against those who wanted to take the money, especially if the economy is still hurting next year. How they fare -- both in primaries and the general election -- can give us some early clues on what messages work and which ones fell flat.
One of the stimulus bill's most vocal supporters -- California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger -- is termed out, too. But while California gubernatorial hopefuls Meg Whitman, former CEO of eBay, and Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner share the Governator's socially moderate profile, they've been vocal opponents of his fiscal policy, specifically the tax hikes in his most recent budget bill.
Will this become to Republicans what the Iraq war was for Democrats? A vote that seems politically smart one year can turn out to be a significant liability down the road. Just ask someone like, oh, Hillary Rodham Clinton. This year, conventional wisdom would suggest that supporting anything with Obama's signature on it is radioactive in a GOP primary. It's more than likely that anti-stimulus govs like Louisiana's Bobby Jindal and Alaska's Sarah Palin will be getting many more requests from candidates and party insiders for fundraising help in '10 than stimulus supporters like Florida's Charlie Crist or Schwarzenegger.
Even so, the latest Quinnipiac poll showed Crist with a 71 percent job approval rating among Florida Republicans, suggesting that embracing Obama hasn't cost him among his base. Of course, being popular in Florida doesn't mean all that much if you can't win in Iowa and New Hampshire. Still, Sen. John McCain showed us that a winner-take-all system, a crowded primary, and a splintered conservative base can allow even mavericks to win the party's nomination.
The fact is, most of the candidates making a run in '10 won't have had much say in whether states should have accepted the stimulus money. That's going to make it hard for voters to know who to hold accountable next year, but how they make up their minds will tell us a lot about the kind of Republican candidates who will be attracted to a 2012 bid.