Few U.S. politicians enjoy fiscal grandstanding more than South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford. Five years ago, the conservative Republican, who was first elected in 2002, brought a piglet under each arm to the state legislature to protest pork-barrel spending. In heavily GOP South Carolina, antics like that helped get him re-elected in 2006. So it's hardly surprising that Sanford, now chairman of the Republican Governors Association, is one of the loudest voices in opposition to President Obama's $787 billion federal stimulus package. In fact, for Sanford, it wasn't enough to declare this week that he'd reject a quarter of South Carolina's $2.8 billion share of the funds unless he could use it to pare down the state's debt. On Thursday he even felt compelled to liken the stimulus to the hyperinflationary policies of Zimbabwe's longtime leader Robert Mugabe.
"What you're doing is buying into the notion that if we just print some more money that we don't have and send it to different states, we'll create jobs," Sanford said. "If that's the case, why isn't Zimbabwe a rich place?" Obama's stimulus "logic," Sanford argued, "is being applied there with little effect." (See 25 people to blame for the financial crisis.)
But Sanford's critics might ask their own rhetorical question: If the governor's notoriously tightfisted ways are the answer, why isn't South Carolina a rich place, instead of the state with crumbling schools and the nation's second highest unemployment rate (10.4%), as Obama has noted more than once since taking office? Even fellow conservative Republicans in South Carolina were troubled by Sanford's Zimbabwe remarks, including 29-year veteran state senator and finance-committee chairman Hugh Leatherman. "That was one of the most asinine comments any elected official could make," Leatherman, 78, told TIME. "I'm as conservative a person as ever walked the planet, but I also consider myself a compassionate person who tries to make sure our people are taken care of. Our people are hurting, and I'm going to fight as hard as I can to get as much of that federal money into this state as I can."
Leatherman, whom Sanford has reproached in the past because of state budget shortfalls, on Thursday introduced a measure to take advantage of a provision in the federal-stimulus legislation that lets state legislatures override a governor's rejection of the funds. It may well pass, especially since the Republican speaker of South Carolina's House, Bobby Harrell, is also at odds with Sanford over the stimulus. (Read "What Is Real Stimulus and What Isn't.")
Still, most South Carolinians, like most Americans, know the stimulus is just part of a larger fight for the currently confused soul of the Republican Party. Now that Sanford has upped (or lowered) the rhetorical ante, many wonder just how polarizing he and other GOP governors like Texas' Rick Perry, who announced Thursday he'll also decline a portion of his state's stimulus money intend to become in their bid to preserve conservative fiscal principle and, perhaps in Sanford's case, position themselves as the Republican presidential nominee in 2012.
The debate over how to escape the worst U.S. recession since the Great Depression seems a battle that Sanford, 48, has been preparing for his entire political life. Since leaving real estate to become a Congressman in 1994 the year Newt Gingrich and the GOP stormed Capitol Hill pledging to rein in federal largesse Sanford has been the consummate fiscal hawk. He slept on an office cot rather than rent a Washington apartment; and, to his credit, he limited himself to three terms in office to avoid assuming the Beltway's prodigal habits. In his 2000 book The Trust Committed to Me, he warned that "politicians in our nation's capital were unable or unwilling to control spending. The more money the politicians sunk into their schemes, the more expensive it got for the rest of us. I couldn't expand my businesses because the politicians kept expanding theirs."