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With two shouted words during the president's speech to Congress Wednesday night, Congressman Joe Wilson cemented South Carolina’s status as the geographic center of opposition to the Obama White House.
Just under nine months into the president's term, the state has emerged as a beachhead for the president's most aggressive conservative critics, a secure launching point for some of the harshest attacks on the administration’s policy initiatives.
Its governor, Mark Sanford, led the charge of Republican governors against the Obama economic stimulus plan and made national headlines by arguing that the administration’s excessive spending could lead to an economic collapse on the scale of Weimar Germany. Sanford, in fact, persisted in rejecting Recovery Act funding until a court ordered him to back down.
When Obama turned his attention to health care, South Carolina’s junior senator, Jim DeMint, touched off a firestorm of criticism by urging conservatives to "break " the new president by defeating reform legislation.
"If we're able to stop Obama on this it will be his Waterloo," DeMint predicted, drawing an acid response from the White House.
Wilson’s notorious “You lie!” outburst in front of a joint session of Congress, was just the latest in the series of salvos, this one coming as Obama claimed his health care reform plan wouldn't offer free care to illegal immigrants.
And there may be more to come: Some South Carolina Republicans say Wilson's remark isn’t exactly out of step with public sentiment in the conservative state.
"If Joe Wilson's mother and father were alive, they'd have taken him to the woodshed and flogged him for bad manners and poor form," said former South Carolina Republican Party Chair Katon Dawson. "But let me tell you what was [said] at the diner today. It was: 'Joe's right.'"
South Carolina didn't always look like such hostile territory for Obama. He never had much hope of winning the state in the general election, but his decisive primary victory there in 2008 helped propel him to the Democratic presidential nomination. While he lost the state in November by nine percentage points to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), his performance nevertheless represented the best Democratic presidential showing in nearly three decades.
Carroll Campbell III, the son of the popular late governor and a Republican exploring his own bid for Congress next year, suggested Wilson's behavior may have resonated with a powerful conservative base frustrated by its minority status.
"I talk to a lot of Republican groups, but most of these individuals are really happy that at least he's showing some backbone," said Campbell, whose father served two terms as governor. "Republicans are desperate for, looking for the new face of politics…There's a sense of satisfaction that at least he can step up and do what he did."
The state has a long history of stridency in national politics, having produced legendary opposition figures from Vice President John C. Calhoun, who helped pave the way for the Civil War, to the late Sen. Strom Thurmond, who filibustered historic civil rights legislation. By comparison, DeMint, Sanford and Wilson are a tame bunch.
"South Carolina is a state that's always loved having characters for politicians," said Bruce Haynes, a political consultant who served as an aide to Campbell. "There's been no shortage of South Carolina politicians over the past 50 years who have said some interesting and outrageous things. And they tend to be reelected by large margins."
While the state has also elected loose-cannon Democrats like Sen. Fritz Hollings, whose seat DeMint won when Hollings retired in 2004, it's no accident that its high-profile politicians tend to be Republicans these days or that they don’t feel bound by the constraints felt by their colleagues in more politically competitive states.
"It has traditionally been a pretty deep-red state and I think that Republican politicians feel that there's not a limit to what they can do or say when it comes to Democratic elected officials, particularly the president," said former Democratic Gov. Jim Hodges, who was defeated by Sanford in 2002. "In most places, they play the sport of politics every two or four years. In South Carolina, they play it every year. It is more important than football, to some degree."
Dawson agreed, citing the state's long and tempestuous political history as a mark of pride: "South Carolina's been yelling from the top of our lungs on national politics since this nation was formed and entered the union."
Obama himself is no stranger to the state's hothouse political culture—one of his favorite stories from the campaign trail, which he retold as recently as Monday, took place at a campaign stop in Greenwood, South Carolina. There, a city council member introduced one of the campaign's most famous slogans when she warmed up Obama's crowd with a feisty chant of "Fired up! Ready to go!"
But even if swaggering politicians and impassioned oratory aren't entirely new to South Carolina, some Democrats say there's a newly harsh tone to public debate there. As the temperature of the conservative base has heated up, so too has the pressure on GOP politicians to become more vocal in their criticism of the president—and they've amped up their rhetoric accordingly.
"South Carolina has always had a reputation of being polite and courteous," said former Democratic Gov. Richard Riley, who served as education secretary in the Clinton administration. "In the past, we've always had a very aggressive, conservative group in South Carolina, but to my knowledge it had always been, basically, polite."
Members of both parties have expressed dismay at the kind of attention Wilson's comment brought to South Carolina - a new embarrassment, some said, on top of an already distressing summer, thanks to the sex scandal that extinguished Sanford's rising star. The state GOP's increasingly caustic tone, some Democrats said, was particularly troubling due to South Carolina's troubled racial history.
"The Republican Party in South Carolina is well steeped in the dark arts of racial politics and I think that Obama's election is particularly galling to some in that party," said Phil Noble, head of the South Carolina New Democrats, an independent reform group. "There are many in that party for whom simply the idea, much less the reality, of a black president is very painful."
Yet there’s evidence that it's not simply Obama who is the target of fired-up South Carolina conservatives. And their frustration isn't even limited to Democrats. Rep. Bob Inglis, a Republican from the Greenville-Spartanburg region, is finding out the hard way that his once-reliably conservative voting record doesn’t grant him immunity from the state's hunger for red-meat politicking.
Inglis has jeopardized his political fortunes by bucking the party line recently on issues ranging from climate change to Iraq to the Pledge of Allegiance. In August, when Inglis told a town hall audience to "turn that television off" when popular conservative talk show host Glenn Beck appears on the screen, the crowd erupted in fury. He is currently facing a crowded GOP primary field in 2010.
Haynes, a former chief of staff to Inglis, suggested that the president's chief South Carolina critics may be responding, in part, to the kind of pressure officeholders like Inglis are feeling back home.
"People have always thought of Joe Wilson as a good, party-line, thoughtful guy. These are not guys who have been thought of as bomb-throwers," he said. "They're conservative, all stretch of the imagination, but they're not anybody who has a long history of grabbing headlines, saying and doing outrageous things."
For now, it remains an open question whether this trend toward the sensational will prove to be a recipe for spinning conservative gold or for producing political poison that turns off Democrats, independents and the state's rapidly-growing population of transplants from other, less conservative regions.
"There is an angst out there and there is a climate of fear right now," Dawson said. "That confusion and chaos creates opportunity."