The GOP’s Big Question

February 23, 2009 |

A story about the GOP's governors in Sunday's New York Times paints a picture of the current Republican Party through the prism of the stimulus debate. The future of the GOP could very well be determined by whether it is the centrist or conservative governors who map out the party's next steps:

Republican governors split sharply during the weekend over how to respond to the economic crisis, a debate whose outcome will go a long way toward shaping how the national party redefines itself in the wake of its election defeats of recent years.

The divisions were evident at the annual winter meeting of the National Governors Association here as the Republicans differed both in their approaches to their own states' budget shortfalls and in their attitudes toward President Obama's $787 billion stimulus package.

Many pundits and political reporters have postulated that any revival of the GOP will likely come from the Party's governors, who have the double advantage over their Congressional counterparts of 1) a smaller stage with which to experiment with new policy ideas that are necessary for any Republican rebirth and 2) the blessing of not having to go head to head with Barack Obama--who still commands a stunning level of public support--in the course of their daily work.

These governors are divided on whether or not they will take money from the stimulus coffers that is intended to help shore up state budgets. Conservative governors have spoken about rejecting the funds outright, or at least not accepting certain funds earmarked for purposes at odds with their ideology. The provision that has drawn the most criticism from these conservatives is unemployment insurance for those who have been laid off from part time work.

These divisions point to a larger political struggle over the future strategy of the GOP. On the one hand there are the more moderate types like Charlie Crist, who advocate for a more bipartisan tone and a move to the center to meet middle class voters where they are at and bring them in to the fold. Standing opposed to this idea are conservative governors (mostly from the South) who think that the party should instead be opposing new spending and taxes in order to shore up their conservative base. From the Times:

"There's a tug of war right now within the party as to where we go next," Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina, one of the conservative Republican leaders, said in an interview. "I am in the camp that says we go back to basics. There are other folks who say something a little different. The answer will be determined in this tug of war."

Among those tugging opposite him is Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, who only last week concluded a battle to close his state's $42 billion budget deficit over the opposition of Republican state lawmakers who opposed tax increases in the compromise.

This internal struggle for the GOP rests on an interesting conundrum: opinion polling has shown that the mood of the country has shifted significantly left, which suggests that opportunity might lie in the more centrist approach that Crist and Schwarzenegger advocate for. However, the value of such a strategy is unclear, as it is difficult to see how the Republicans will be able to grow towards the center when Barack Obama has staked out that space so effectively. On the other hand, a move towards the right and a more principled conservatism could further isolate those moderate voters who hold no ideological commitments either way.

As President Obama continues to work towards economic recovery, this debate will undoubtedly influence the course of events. If the GOP centrist faction controls the upper hand, it will be easier for Obama to build broad support for further stimulus efforts and long term investment strategies that are necessary to future economic security. However, if power rests with the conservatives, the GOP could continue their attempts to stonewall Obama's recovery efforts, although they do so at their own peril in a country whose voting body has trended left in the past two national elections. For now, however, the Republicans have chosen conservative Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal to deliver their response to Obama's address to Congress tomorrow, signaling, at least for now, who holds the upper hand in the Grand Old Party.