Judging from all the Republican governors in D.C.'s media spotlight this weekend, a casual observer might have wondered if any Democratic chief executives were joining them for the annual National Governors Association meeting.
They were, of course, but with reporters focused on the GOP's intraparty debate on the wisdom of the stimulus package, the Democrats were largely an afterthought. Indeed, as one reporter interviewed Indiana Republican Mitch Daniels on his party's stimulus split, Michigan Democrat Jennifer Granholm joked that her GOP counterparts were "getting all the questions" at the NGA meeting and pulled Daniels aside for a private conversation.
The debate flared up right before the three-day confab began Saturday when a handful of GOP governors led by Mark Sanford of South Carolina signaled that they might turn down some of the stimulus aid to their states, especially spending on unemployment compensation. Those joining Sanford included Govs. Haley Barbour of Mississippi, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Butch Otter of Idaho and Rick Perry of Texas. Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who was a conspicuous no-show at the NGA gathering, has also been a sharp critic of the stimulus bill.
Sanford ultimately decided to accept stimulus money to raise unemployment checks in his state by $25 a week, but he held firm against other portions of the package. Over the weekend, he raised the prospect that his state might also reject energy conservation block grants. "Clearly the spending is unsustainable," said Sanford. "We need to be looking at the bigger picture here."
And from the South Carolinian's view, the GOP split is likely to persist. "I think this is going to stay alive because this [stimulus] thing's not going to work," said Sanford.
In the opposing corner are Govs. Charlie Crist of Florida, Jim Douglas of Vermont, Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and Jodi Rell of Connecticut, who signed a letter with 14 Democratic governors to President Obama backing the measure earlier this month. Crist became the poster boy of GOP governors supporting the stimulus package after he introduced Obama at a town hall meeting in Fort Myers where the president stumped for his plan. In an interview before the NGA meeting, Crist said he backed he backed the stimulus as "a matter of practicality and pragmatism." He added: "You deal with the realities of an economic crisis, the impact it's having on your state, and the fact that this plan in my view was going to pass anyway, so let's do the best we can with a difficult situation and try to help the people first."
Many Republican governors seemed more comfortable on the sidelines of their intraparty debate. "I'm sitting it out," Daniels said. He added, "I'm rooting for the bill to work. I'm trying to use its funds wisely."
Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue said that while he would have voted against the stimulus bill had he been a member of Congress, he didn't urge Republicans in Georgia's congressional delegation to oppose the measure because he would have "felt a little uncomfortable lobbying against it knowing we would use some portion of it." So far, Perdue said, he and his staff haven't decided to reject any of the stimulus money, but their review process isn't over yet.
Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty said that he opposed the stimulus bill because it spent too much, the funds were not targeted enough, and the final measure, which was only supported by three Republican senators, did not match Obama's pledge to govern in a bipartisan manner.
But Pawlenty parted ways with his GOP colleagues who said they would reject the increased funding for unemployment compensation. Pawlenty said his state would accept all the stimulus funds in part because Minnesota already sends more tax dollars to Washington than it receives in federal funds.
"Almost all the governors will take all the money," said Pawlenty. He said the hike in unemployment spending "is clearly temporary," and he rejected the notion that the increase would commit states to pay for programs in the future after the stimulus funds ran out. "This is a time to help unemployed people," he added. "Novel thought."
Appearing on ABC's "This Week," Schwarzenegger said that he would gladly relieve Sanford of any stimulus money that he did not want to spend. "I'll take it," said Schwarzenegger. "I'm more than happy to take his money or any other governor in this country that doesn't want to take this money."
That comment brought a tart response from Sanford. "There is a larger problem if we get so Balkanized with [comments like] 'you-don't-want-yours-give-it-to-me," said Sanford. "That means nobody is minding the store" to hold down spending.
Republican strategist and former Republican Governors Association executive director Phil Musser downplayed the split among the GOP governors and noted that while they don't have a unified stance on the stimulus, several of them demonstrated they could be effective messengers for the party while it is shut out of power in Washington. "I think everyone on our side was very pleased that you couldn't turn on a television set on Sunday without hearing from a Republican governor," said Musser. "Even though they were articulating differences, they were articulating."
Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, whom Obama has tapped to be the new chairman of the Democratic National Committee, wouldn't venture an opinion on whether the GOP split over the stimulus will compromise Republicans' statehouse races in the 2010 elections. The DNC chief allowed that those who opposed the stimulus "are going to have interesting decisions to make in their own states" when it comes to accepting the funds.
Kaine said he felt that a majority of the Republican governors supported the stimulus plan and juxtaposed that with the near unanimous opposition of GOP members of Congress to the measure. "The strong support of Republican governors demonstrates the reservoir of bipartisanship among governors," said Kaine.
Meanwhile, Crist seemed perfectly at ease with his position as the most visible Republican proponent of the stimulus. After appearing Sunday morning on NBC's "Meet the Press," where he reiterated his support for the stimulus measure, Crist showed up that afternoon at the NGA's Natural Resources Committee meeting wearing a checked shirt sans tie and blue fleece jacket. He explained that his casual wardrobe -- all of his colleagues were in suits -- fit the committee's name.
Crist noted that the RGA will raise a record $10.25 million at the GOP governors' annual gala dinner this evening -- an event he chairs. Asked whether he found it ironic that after having supported Obama on the stimulus package he'd also be presiding over a record fundraising haul for the RGA, Crist smiled said, "Maybe they like what we're doing. It's a market response."
Regardless of their positions on the stimulus bill, the package could turn out to be a net political plus for all of the Republican governors. They will benefit from large amounts of stimulus funding for their states while they don't bear any responsibility for the huge amount of federal spending the package.
It's difficult to nationalize governor's races around any specific issue, observed Penny Lee, a principal at Washington public affairs firm Venn Strategies and a former executive director of the Democratic Governors Association. What will count more is how the overall image of Obama and the Democrats could be damaged if the stimulus plan doesn't pull the economy out of the ditch.
"It's the same thing we were able to do with [President] Bush," said Lee. "We could blame him for all the woes of world."