Pete Spiliakos on Republican Donors

by Reihan Salam

Are Republican donors the chief obstacle to crafting a more middle-class-friendly message for the GOP? Pete Spiliakos of First Things suggests that this isn’t quite the case. The following is a brief summary of the heart of his argument, which aligns closely with my own thinking on the matter:

(1) Mitt Romney was the favorite candidate of the donor class by any reasonable definition. Yet his original tax cut proposal, presumably very salient to the donor class, was quite modest. He embraced a new tax cut proposal — a slight variation on the 1996 Dole-Kemp tax cut proposal — not when he was desperate for campaign contributions or renewed Super PAC spending, but rather after Rick Santorum had gained momentum as the candidate of “conservative authenticity.”

(2) And so the proximate cause of a policy shift to the right wasn’t a demand from donors, but rather a perceived demand from activists. The second Romney tax cut proposal, as expected, earned plaudits from the Wall Street Journal editorial page, which is widely regarded as a crucial imprimatur for conservative activists. 

One could reply that while Santorum’s rise was the proximate cause of Romney’s policy shift, it was not the deeper cause. Perhaps conservative activists have been shaped by a donor-driven consensus. But I don’t think that’s right either. Republican candidates can establish conservative authenticity in a number of ways, and it seems reasonable to posit that a candidate more firmly rooted in the conservative camp than Romney might have had more flexibility on taxes and other domestic policy issues relevant to the conservative reform project than the former Massachusetts governor. For example, Ross Douthat has argued that had Romney been willing to repudiate the universal coverage legislation he championed in Massachusetts, he might have had more wherewithal to pivot to a more centrist message earlier in the campaign cycle.

The donor thesis has some surface plausibility, as many donors are highly ideological, e.g., Sheldon Adelson. But note that even the most ideological donors, Adelson included, seemed willing to make pragmatic concessions to what they took to be political reality, hence Adelson’s eventual decision to abandon Newt Gingrich. Even highly ideological donors are likely to evaluate the two major parties in terms of their relative positions.

Finally, the donor thesis seems like yet another reasons to favor Wallison-Gora-style campaign finance reform, which would allow political parties to engage in unlimited coordinated spending with candidates. Stronger political parties will be in a better position to balance the competing interests of various donors, whereas individual candidates tend to have less leverage. This, of course, is more relevant for congressional candidates than presidential candidates.

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.