Jacob Heilbrunn

Is Corporate America Going to War Against the GOP?

The Republican party is becoming too interesting for its own good. While the Democrats savor their victory over the GOP, Republicans themselves are going to war—against each other. A case in point is the growing disaffection of the business community with the Republican party.

It was no accident that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers both warned legislators against crashing through the debt ceiling. The consequences might well have been cataclysmic. In 2008 Lehmann Brothers wasn't seen as critical to the global economy. But when Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson decided to let it go under, investors panicked. When they do, a Great Recession or even a Great Depression results. Confidence is a lot easier to lose than to gain. So a rerun was more than likely this past week. Interest rates would have soared. The value of the dollar would have plummeted. The stock market would have plunged. So would consumer confidence. Around the globe America would have been vilified for tanking the prospects of an economic recovery.

Now corporate America is talking about opposing Tea Party candidates with more moderate ones. This is a fundamental rift over the true identity of the Republican party. William Galston of the Brookings Institution observes supporters of the Tea Party are not outsiders but, rather, form "a dissident reform movement within the party, determined to move it back toward true conservatism after what they see as the apostasies of the Bush years and the outrages of the Obama administration." But now big business wants to stage a counter-reformation—a showdown between what the Dallas Morning News calls limited government, on the one hand, and anti-government conservatives, on the other. It reports that Jim Oberwetter, former ambassador to Saudi Arabia and head of the Dallas regional chamber of commerce, says: "When a populist point of view becomes so prominent, people in the business community need to voice their views just as loudly.”

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is apparently examining which centrist Republican candidates it should support next year. The Wall Street Journal reports,

Hal Sirkin, a senior partner with the Boston Consulting Group, said his conversations with executives in a range of industries suggest widespread frustration with the Republican party. The budget battle "is giving them pause to reconsider everything that they believed" about conservative support for business, he said. Some executives have told him they plan to pull back their support for the party "as a message to say, this is not acceptable. You can't trash the business community," he added.

Actually, you can. But it's a foolish tack to adopt. Until recently, it's been Occupy Wall Street that had enjoyed the patent on bashing corporate America. It would be extraordinarily reckless for the GOP to turn its back on its most powerful and wealthy sponsor. The Republican party has traditionally been the home of business interests. But a fixation with short-term deficit-cutting is threatening to obscure the importance of immediate economic growth. The message of the GOP has been long on Scrooge McDuck and short on Horatio Alger. Which is to say that a Reaganesque message of growth, prosperity and initiative has been notably absent.

What continues to hold the Republican coalition together in the House is speaker John Boehner. For all the complaints from the right about Boehner, it's not clear who could succeed him. Furthermore, the Washington Post notes that Boehner's close relationship with the business community is key:

Ultimately, Boehner had to rely on bipartisan support to avoid a likely default on the debt. But instead of this nail-biting episode causing a split between business lobbyists and their GOP allies, it might have drawn them even closer as they seek to limit the influence of tea party candidates who have little regard for corporate interests. After helping to vault Boehner into the speaker role following the 2010 elections, these lobbyists are eager to keep him in charge of the House.

Right now, Boehner may be able to broker an uneasy truce between the two sides whose mutual hostility has become undisguised. But guerrilla warfare and sniping between the two sides is sure to reemerge as the 2014 election begins to loom large. This is good for the media and bad for the party because it means that the GOP will likely remain a fascinating subject of observation.

Image: Flickr/Eric Molina. CC BY 2.0.