In announcing its plans to ignite a Republican civil war on the eve of the 2014 election cycle Scott Reed of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said the goal is “no fools on our ticket.” He made this announcement while donning a $50 million court jester suit. That is the amount of money the group plans on spending in the upcoming GOP primaries.
Apparently believing congressional leadership – whose job approval rating makes President Obama’s 39% approval look robust – needs a bit of shoring up as the new cycle commences, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has decided the enemy is not the Democrats who visited Obamacare and an unprecedented era of government regulation upon business. No, the enemy is the Tea Party.
Yes, the Tea Party, the grassroots movement of Americans who still believe in the principles of limited, constitutional government. That movement, you may recall, which returned the GOP to majority status in the U.S. House of Representatives providing at least some modicum of counterbalance to the President’s rigid ideological agenda.
Reed’s strategy is classic minority think. Rather than expand the coalition into a diverse – and yes, sometimes contentious majority, he would rather the ineffective GOP establishment in congress retain control over a diminished, but tightly controlled minority conference. This is not about what is best for business, or for the Republican Party, or for the good of the nation: it is about controlling the levers of power in congress.
We’ve seen this act before. Newt Gingrich’s conservative revolution led the GOP into majority control of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1994. He floundered and in 1998 the establishment took control of the Republican conference, only to cede control back to the Democrats in 2006. That happened because the GOP establishment proved itself to be Democrat lite, so voters opted for the real thing. Lest Mr. Reed forget, it took the grassroots fervor of the Tea Party to sweep the GOP back into power in 2010.
With establishment figures like John Boehner and Mitch McConnell holding top GOP leadership positions in the House and Senate respectively, public approval of the legislative branch has fallen to single digits. Again, the American public is rejecting their approach to governance, but the U.S. Chamber is rushing to the rescue.
At issue is control of the U.S. Senate. Reed says the chamber’s goal is “to make sure, when it comes to the Senate, that we have no loser candidates.” Those are nice sounding code words for “make sure we have no Tea Party candidates.” Recent election cycles have produced senators not willing to bend to the will of establishment leadership. Senators like Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Mike Lee of Utah, and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin come to mind.
Under the chamber’s current strategy even Pennsylvania’s Pat Toomey, who chased establishment U.S. Senator Arlen Specter from the party and then claimed that seat in the 2010 General Election would have been in that year a chamber target under the new Reed strategy. Toomey has chosen a more workman-like approach than the senators mentioned above, eschewing the spotlight for what has proven to be highly effective behind-the-scenes legislating,
Reed and the Washington GOP establishment have seized on Tea Party missteps to make their case in the upcoming primaries. But, for every Tea Party loss like Christine O’Donnell in Delaware, there has been an establishment melt-down like George Allen in Virginia. Simply put, Reed and his allies have supported their share of losing nominees.
All of this plays out against the backdrop of the GOP’s failure to win control of the U.S. Senate in 2012. The party’s chances looked promising, but missteps by both Tea Party-backed and establishment-backed candidates overlaid by the inept Presidential campaign of establishment favorite Mitt Romney scuttled the opportunity.
With nearly twice as many Democrat as Republican seats up for election in 2014 and an electoral climate poisoned by the Obamacare fiasco the GOP’s chances of winning a senate majority are good, very good. But groups like the U.S. Chamber declaring war on the party base are a bad omen. Because it doesn’t matter who is nominated, no Republican candidate in any state can win without the active support of voters who identify with Tea Party principles.
The Tea Party and the chamber should be natural allies, but a power driven desire for insider control has led the business group to choose conflict over collaboration.
It is, to adopt their term, a fool’s errand.
(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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