The National Governors Association came to town over the weekend and staged a debate over President Obama's economic stimulus plan. Notably, the debate featured Republicans arguing with other Republicans.
On one hand we had the post-Millennium modernists, led by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and his Sun Belt soul mate, Charlie Crist, the governor of Florida. Both have been regarded as important symbols in the new GOP, representing as they do the first and fourth most populous states in the union.
Movie star Schwarzenegger was everywhere for days. He buddied up to the White House, praised its priorities, urged his fellow Republicans to jettison their traditional loathing of Washington and get with the program.
Told there were GOP governors willing to thumb their noses at parts of the package, the man known simply as Arnold smiled his Hollywood smile and said, "Fine, we'll take that money and rebuild California."
Crist, the man with the tan, was nearly as ubiquitous, if not nearly as upbeat. He kept talking about Florida's homes in foreclosure and jobs being lost. His sober-sided emphasis on substance evoked a flinty New England Republican from the past, a far cry from last summer's image of Crist as a glamorpuss angling to be John McCain's running mate.
Weighing in as another post-Millennial type was Tim Pawlenty, the Republican governor of glitz-free Minnesota. Pawlenty is best known for coining the term "Sam's Club Republicans," a winning description of those non-elite millions who see virtue in small government and low taxes.
Pawlenty seemed less cozy with the new president than his more photogenic colleagues from the vacation states. But he echoed their themes of inclusion and pragmatism. Midwesterners pride themselves on making things work.
On the other side, not many governors were ready to support the scorched earth resistance of Rush Limbaugh and his talk show chorus, who can't wait for the new president to fail. But a few were willing to ride the wave of resentment on the right, and most of the attention went to three from medium-to-small states in the Deep South.
The senior spokesman in that triumvirate was Haley Barbour, two-term governor of Mississippi, who was chairman of the Republican National Committee during the 1994 midterm election. That was the historic cycle in which the GOP won a majority of the Southern governorships for the first time in history, adding its first majority of seats from Southern states in the House and the Senate as well.
On the strength of its Southern surge, the GOP became the majority party in both the House and Senate, and captured a majority of the 50 statehouses as well. Barbour was highly visible that season, waving his "Rising Tide" banner for the GOP.
Barbour's trajectory suffered somewhat when his party failed to dislodge President Clinton in 1996. But Barbour personally prospered as a blue chip Washington lobbyist, then went home to become governor in 2003. Distracted by fallout from Hurricane Katrina, he has passed on chances to return to the national stage as a senator or encore party chairman. But at 61, he has time and surely wants to be part of the conversation.
While not shy about taking federal dollars for disaster relief, Barbour was hesitant about the extra money on offer for unemployment insurance. It came with strings affecting future governance of that state-federal program and a requirement for more business taxes. That was a stumbling block for other Southern Republicans, too.
One of them was Mark Sanford of South Carolina. Another Man of '94, Sanford came to the Capitol with the torch-bearing troops of Newt Gingrich but proved even more conservative than his cohort. He often lined up with libertarian hero Ron Paul, even when no one else did. And unlike many who took the three-terms-and-out pledge, Sanford did his three and left.
Sanford came back to politics two years later as governor and has shown a preference for the executive role. His second term ends in 2010, and he has been touted as a candidate for the White House in 2012. He is now chairman of the National Governors Association (a job once held by Bill Clinton) and has the backing of some who had backed Paul's earlier bids for the presidency.
And finally, the Republicans have been led in opposition to the stimulus by Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, the party choice to respond to Obama's address to Congress this week. In his way, Jindal too is a Man of '94. He was on Capitol Hill as an intern to a Louisiana congressman in the heady days before that historic election. The congressman introduced Jindal to the Republican governor of Louisiana, who gave him a job and launched his political career.
While not yet 40, Jindal has become a favorite among Republicans seeking a fresh face for 2012. Son of Indian immigrants, Jindal is often called the GOP's Obama not just for his race but for his eloquence and cerebral approach to politics. Both rose as exceptions to the corrupt reputations of their political habitats in Chicago and Louisiana.
While these Republicans delineated the debate, the silent majority of their fellow governors in both parties were far less in evidence. They enjoyed their days in the nation's capital and their visits to the White House and went home ready to claim the federal dollars coming their way.
Like most of their constituents, they surely have their doubts about how much good the stimulus can do for the country. But like those same constituents, they're ready to see how much good it can do for them.