The Upshot Of Sanford's Fight

Yesterday, South Carolina's Supreme Court ruled against Gov. Mark Sanford in his dispute over $700 million in federal stimulus funds, ordering Sanford to apply for the money as required by the stimulus bill. Sanford didn't want to accept the money because he saw it as an attempt by the federal government to force unfunded spending on the state; stimulus supporters, such as House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-SC), pointed to the state's economic woes and stimulus language that allowed state legislatures to circumvent spending-opposed governors, and said he should take the money, to be allotted for education.

"Political posturing doesn't educate our children or protect our communities," Clyburn said in April. That was mostly how stimulus supporters, and Sanford's critics, saw his resistance to the funds.

Though Sanford was defeated in court, the result could be worse for him. As a widely speculated 2012 hopeful, the governor has made his point about the stimulus funds--in fact, he has carved out a niche for himself as an anti-stimulus leader, and has won political points with conservatives in doing so. And it might be good for him that the fight ends here.

By not appealing the state Supreme Court decision--which he announced he wouldn't three days before it was handed down--Sanford avoids another cycle of headlines that make him look, to moderates, like an ornery obstructionist. Especially in the face of a unanimous, 5-0 decision and a writ of mandamus issued by the court to force his hand--and with a federal court already having sent the case to the state--his prospects for legal success at the federal level appear limited. Further discussion of Sanford's resistance might fit nicely within the Democrats' "party of no" messaging frame at a national level.

Sanford said again Thursday that he won't appeal the ruling.

He has already succeeded in raising objections--which resonate with small-government conservatives who advocate states' rights and limited federal power--to the federal government forcing states to accept funds.

In responding to the decision, Sanford lamented state precedents that give appropriation power to the legislature. "In South Carolina, in many ways, we don't have three branches of government. We have only one," he said, according to the Associated Press report. "If you put too much power in one place, not many good things happen."

This sounds almost esoteric to a national audience: it's about state-level dynamics, and it's not an attention-grabbing tirade against the tyranny of Obama's stimulus.

Liberals and moderates will probably still think of Sanford as the governor who didn't want to go along with Obama's job-saving plan, and who rejected free money in the face of an economic crisis (though Sanford's point is that the money wasn't free). But to conservatives, he's an anti-big-government-spending, anti-federal-power-grab, anti-Obama-socialist-regime icon, hamstrung by South Carolina's legislature, its court, and the stimulus language that gave legislatures a way to get around his opposition.

It's now over for Sanford. He can rake in his conservative credits and say, honestly, that there was nothing more he realistically could have done to fight on. Liberals already think his objection was a bit ridiculous, so he hasn't lost much there.

By accepting the decision, he remains within the national mainstream--going along with the stimulus program as other GOP governors have, even as he objects to it. If he fought the stimulus to the death, he'd risk looking like a radical.

The bottom line is: Sanford exits this fight with more national conservative cred than he had going in, and, thanks to the Supreme Court's unanimity, he can't keep going at his own risk.