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The Republican Future: Can't We All Just Get Along?

SCOTT SIMON, host:

South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford has been a strong critic of President Obama's $787 billion economic stimulus plan. It's made him a leading voice in the Republican Party, and he caused a stir this week when he said his state would not accept some of the stimulus money that's been allotted to it unless it could be used to pay down the state's debt. I'm joined now in our studios by Reihan Salam, associate editor at the Atlantic and co-author of "Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream."

Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. REIHAN SALAM (The Atlantic): Thanks for having me.

SIMON: And let's point out that in addition to Governor Sanford, you've got Governor Jindal of Louisiana, Haley Barbour of Mississippi, who's also talking about rejecting parts of the stimulus package. But South Carolina has the second-highest unemployment rate in the country, 10.4 percent. Is this a smart thing, to be turning down money?

SALAM: Well, that's tough to say. But it's certainly politically very shrewd, because Mark Sanford is carving out very distinctive territory for himself as the voice of the party's conservative wing.

SIMON: Is it a good thing for South Carolina to turn down money?

SALAM: Well, it's tough to say because on a certain level, if he really did get the plan through and could pay down the state's debt, maybe that puts South Carolina in better shape over the long term, gives it a more sustainable budget picture. Sanford has tried to make South Carolina a more competitive state.

But again, a lot of that money is going to education, a service that means a lot in a state with such a high poverty rate.

SIMON: Yeah.

SALAM: So I think that Sanford's a smart guy. I wouldn't necessarily do the same thing, but I think that he has a broader plan in mind, in terms of making the state more successful over the long term.

SIMON: Is there a split in the party between the congressional wing and the governors?

SALAM: Oh yeah. There's absolutely a split, because you have governors like Sanford and Barber and Jindal who've aligned themselves with the congressional Republicans. But then you have a guy like Governor Jon Huntsman in Utah, a very conservative state, but here's a guy who's championing the stimulus. You've got Charles Crist in Florida doing the exact same thing.

And these guys are saying, look, we're governors. We have to be pragmatic. We have to, you know, have solutions for the people of our state. And we also have to get re-elected, by the way. And they are absolutely on side with President Obama and against congressional Republicans.

SIMON: Well, that brings up the character of the Republican Party as it's formed now in the wake of a defeat, which of course - not just defeat on the presidential level but the congressional level, and losing state houses.

You have, at the moment, recognizing politics as a changeable environment, you have an enormously popular Democratic president who can get what he wants without the support of Republicans in the Congress, as a generalization.

What do you see it becomes - and I don't want to put it just in terms of politics. What becomes best for the country, for the Republicans at this point?

SALAM: I think it becomes best for the Republicans to offer a constructive opposition, and that sometimes is going to mean sharp criticism. Particularly when a president is at his most popular. That's when you want to start establishing the narrative, start establishing the critiques.

Democrats, you know, in Washington were oftentimes very reluctant to criticize Bush at the height of his popularity. Then you had a lot of folks, we called them the netroots, we called them all kinds of things, out in the country, who said, hey, wait a second, we have to start criticizing this stuff now. And you know, somehow those critiques started to resonate later on, as new problems emerged.

And I think that, you know, I didn't necessarily agree with them then, but were they doing the country a service? I think the answer is yes. And I think that right now, similarly, conservative Republicans who object to the stimulus, who object to the budget, it's important that they start bringing out their intellectual firepower and laying out those critiques so that the rest of us can have a more informed choice.

SIMON: Does it put them in the unusual position of, to borrow a phrase that's been booted around over the past few weeks, rooting for the failure of President Obama's policies at a time when the livelihoods and welfare of millions of Americans are at stake?

SALAM: Well, Rush Limbaugh infamously said that he is rooting for President Obama's failure because he believes that President Obama aims to turn America into a socialist state of some kind.

I think that if you understand what President Obama is trying to do -and I think that this is what he's trying to do, is turn around the economy and help keep as many Americans employed as possible - then it's crazy to want him to fail. So I think that it's a kind of rhetorical question of what you think he's trying to do, and I think that it's important for Republicans to give him the benefit of a doubt, but again, to offer sharp criticisms where they think he's going wrong.

SIMON: Yeah. And in the time that we have left, you see Governor Sanford as staking out a real franchise now.

SALAM: Absolutely. I think that in the last Republican presidential primaries, you saw a lot of young people, a lot of people on the fringe of Republican politics, get involved through the Ron Paul campaign. These were hard-core libertarians. Now you see Sanford, an elected governor, as someone who is taking up a lot of those same themes and maybe demonstrating that this is a real phenomenon in the party.

SIMON: Yeah. Ron Paul not only, of course, got a certain, well, financial support. Maybe not a lot of votes, but he certainly attracted a lot of interest.

SALAM: And a lot of young people.

SIMON: Okay, thanks very much for being with us. Hope to have you back. Reihan Salam, associate editor of The Atlantic and co-author of "The Grand New Party." Thanks very much for being with us.

SALAM: Thank you.

SIMON: And you're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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