Thirty-one percent of Americans had a favorable opinion of the Republican Party last week, a record low, and even that slender faith must rest on the party's storied past, not on anything its leaders have done or said lately that would merit anyone's admiration.
The best measure of the party's predicament is that it finds itself tethered to the fortunes of a little band of governors who claim the Republican orthodoxy that the worst thing a government can do when the country is plunging into a depression is spend money.
Congressional Republicans united behind the theory that when the economy is in a straitjacket the remedy is to bind it tighter. Thus they opposed President Obama's stimulus program and proposed instead to shrink economic activity by reversing eight years of profligacy and cutting federal spending.
Three governors, who currently top the list of Republican presidential candidates for 2012, now carry that proud banner. They have grabbed the nation's attention by resisting federal stimulus aid for their states. The party's fortunes for the immediate future depend upon the contrast they offer to the national government's economic program. That cannot be an encouraging prospect.
It would be hard to find three more absurd figures even in the party's moribund state than Governors Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Mark Sanford of South Carolina and Sarah Palin of Alaska, who have raised their standings in the 2012 stakes by saying they will protect their states from the ruin that will be caused by the borrowing and spending to stimulate the economy.
Palin, who is the front-runner for the Republicans in spite of the enduring soap opera involving the criminal activity of family members and the verbal war with her grandchild's father, denounced the stimulus program but last week said she would take $642 million of the whopping $930 million earmarked for Alaska and she wouldn't mind if local officials claimed some of the rest. But she did not want any federal money for Alaska schools because it would commit the state to continuing the education funding when the stimulus lapsed. School officials ands state legislators, Republicans and Democrats alike, said she was wrong.
Palin's posturing about federal aid is as ironic as it was during the presidential campaign when she claimed to have told the federal government “thanks but no thanks” for pork-barrel spending in her state. (She regularly asked for and received more federal earmarks per capita than any other governor in the country.) Alaska still ranks No. 1 in the country in federal money per capita spent in the state, far outstripping the state's tax contributions to the federal treasury.
Sanford is the purist in the group. Originally, he would allow none of the federal money to enter his beleaguered state, where his tight tax and spending policies have sent unemployment soaring past 11 percent, second only to Michigan, but now he says he will take some of it. Although a state economic advisory group projects that official unemployment will reach 14 percent and real joblessness even higher this year, Sanford is adamant that South Carolina will allow no federal aid for extended unemployment benefits.
All that Sanford wants from the federal government is money to pay down the state's debt. Aid for education and other state programs? Absolutely not, he said, although 4,700 teachers and prison guards are on the verge of being laid off as the state budget shrinks by a billion dollars.
Sanford said unlike other politicians he didn't care if people did not like him. The millionaire governor is immune to human suffering. He knows what is best for the downtrodden in the long run, which is smaller government.
“I sleep like a baby at night,” he said last week.
He will be the perfect presidential candidate for 2012.
If hypocrisy is the standard, our good neighbor Bobby Jindal should get the nod. Economic conditions in Louisiana, thanks to the federal government, are far different from South Carolina but Jindal is competing with Sanford as the leading foe of federal aid. Its unemployment is half South Carolina's and one of the lowest in the country so it is easier to rationalize rejecting $98 million of federal assistance for extended jobless benefits.
But the reason for Louisiana's aberration, its relatively good times in the midst of the worst economic slide in 75 years, is the federal spending he denounces. In the three years since Hurricane Katrina the federal government has dumped $51 billion into the state, the largest stimulus in one state in history: $10 million a day last year in construction money, $25 million a week in assistance for local governments to rebuild public facilities, nearly $8 billion in cash grants to people whose homes were damaged in the flooding, billions more in federally subsidized flood insurance, low-interest loans and levee reconstruction. The massive construction program has brought contractors from across the country into south Louisiana.
Thanks to Washington and American taxpayers, Louisiana was the only state to experience a decline in unemployment as the disaster year of 2008 ended and it is the only state to see an increase in nonfarm employment this year.
While Jindal was proclaiming the evils of federal spending, famously in his nationally televised response to the president State of the Union address, his department heads were beseeching the federal government for even more aid for reconstruction.
This is not Republicanism to admire, but it is the best they have.