When President Barack Obama took his stimulus road show into Florida on Tuesday, Governor Charlie Crist was waiting, tapping his foot. Crist, a Republican, is actually six months ahead of Washington in the stimulus game: in August, in response to his state’s economic implosion, he launched Accelerate Florida, which is pouring out more than $28 billion in stored-up state funds for the kind of infrastructure and school-construction projects that are still being debated inside the Beltway.
At the time Crist announced Accelerate Florida, few if any fellow
Republicans seemed to condemn the idea. And that makes it all the more
curious to Crist and other moderate Republicans that now, when states’ budget crises are even worse, conservative Republican governors in states like Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana and Alaska are following GOP leaders on Capitol Hill in adamant opposition to Obama’s federal stimulus package.
“I see this package as a pragmatic, commonsense opportunity to move forward,” Crist, who appeared with Obama in economically beleaguered Fort Myers today to tout the stimulus, told TIME on Monday night. “I didn’t campaign for Obama, we don’t agree on everything, but he’s my President, and my job is to help Florida stay in the black.” Introducing Obama at the town-hall meeting, Crist said it was not just important “that we support this stimulus package” but that “we do it in a bipartisan way … It’s about rising above” partisanship.
Crist’s puzzlement at his colleagues’ opposition reflects a fundamental divide in his party. If the stimulus debate has solidified Republican ideology in Washington, it has further exposed the party’s fault lines at the state level where many believe the GOP’s future direction will be decided after the electoral disaster of 2008. For Crist and other moderate, bipartisan governors like California’s Arnold Schwarzenegger and Vermont’s Jim Douglas, backing the $800 billion recovery bill taking shape in Congress isn’t just an act of economic self-interest; it also lets them showcase a less ideological conservatism that they insist voters want in the 21st century. For the camp that includes South Carolina’s Mark Sanford, chairman of the Republican Governors Association, and Texas’ Rick Perry, the legislation is a federal leviathan that lets them display faithfulness to the roots of the GOP as a Big Government slayer. “Rather than devote an unprecedented number of dollars to expanding government,” Perry said last week, “they should stimulate the economy with something that actually works: tax cuts.”