04/19/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Tea Party Hangover

The gubernatorial campaign of Florida Republican Governor Charlie Crist is in deep trouble. Since an August Rasmussen poll put the Governor 22 points ahead of his challenger, conservative, Tea Party favorite Marco Rubio, Crist has sunk to 12 points behind the former state House Speaker, a swing of 34 points in six months. Even before the devastating Rasmussen poll, pundits were weighing the wisdom of Crist running as an Independent, a possibility the Crist campaign quickly squashed.

Rubio has gained ground on Crist primarily by attacking the Governor's support for President Obama's economic stimulus package, which he calls "a horrifying decision". He has even organized a $787,000 "moneybomb" to raise $1,000 for every billion dollars of stimulus spending. Rubio says Crist "cut the legs out from under" the Republicans by supporting Obama. He told The Washington Times:

There were a lot of good ideas being floated by limited-government Republicans, like across-the-board tax cuts that would have stimulated our economy, would have created jobs. [Crist] should have lined up behind those ideas...

Yet, Crist's support for the stimulus seems understandable, given Florida's three-year (2009-2011) budget gap of approximately $16 billion, about equal to the $16 billion that Florida could receive from the recovery package. Besides the $1.25 billion the state Department of Transportation collected for high-speed rail, Florida recipients of stimulus funds report almost 35,000 jobs resulting from stimulus spending on weatherization, job training, and infrastructure construction.

Further, the stimulus actually includes many of Rubio's "good [Republican] ideas": the bill has an estimated $9.85 million in tax cuts for Florida individuals and businesses, benefiting approximately 6.4 million Floridians and 800,000 of their children. Rubio must be unaware that about a third of the entire stimulus package is made up of tax cuts (or maybe he just no longer thinks tax cuts stimulate the economy).

However, similar to the many congressmen and senators opposed to the stimulus who have been caught taking credit for stimulus money, when pressed, Rubio admits that he "would have accepted those portions of the money that would not have put Florida in a worse position off in the future than it is right now."

Rubio's statement gets at the very heart of the tension, and the hypocrisy, of the current conservative moment. The rhetoric of limited government, free enterprise, and budget austerity, is belied by what, in the end, is good for American states and cities and for the country as a whole. Rubio, obviously foreseeing campaign attacks highlighting his criticism of a measure that kept 425,000 Floridians out of poverty, cannot bring himself to follow through on his support for a government that would choose a balanced budget over economic recovery. And yet, his campaign is built around this very opposition to federal spending to stimulate the economy.

The choice in the 2010 elections will be presented as one between a Democratic Party overzealous with ideas and a Republican Party bereft of responses to the country's most important challenges. The interesting question on this first anniversary of the stimulus, however, is what will happen when a conservative movement building itself on opposition to governing finds itself in the driver's seat. Will it be courageous enough to pull back the remaining stimulus spending and extend the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, leaving 10 percent unemployment to do its worst? Or will it reveal its intellectual hypocrisy and do what it seems to know is best for the country?