As Sean Trende and others have noted, middle- and working-class voters did not turn out for Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election in the numbers that Republican leaders had expected. In the eyes of many of these once-Republican-leaning voters (including former Reagan Democrats), the GOP appears to be too closely linked to “big business.” In response, many conservative thinkers have called for a more populist GOP, oriented toward the middle and working classes and distant from corporate elites.
It is time to reexamine the relationship between big business and the American center-right. While corporate America has a close relationship with the Republican party generally, its engagement with American conservatism is fraught with complications. Business leaders and conservatives often join forces for pragmatic gain on significant issues such as Obamacare, taxes, trade policy, cap-and-trade proposals, and other environmental and government regulations. This issue-by-issue alliance is tactically useful to both groups and no doubt will (and should) continue.
Republicans as a party, however, and conservatives specifically, should not be subservient to corporate interests on core issues. The American electorate must come to view Republicans as the party of the middle class rather than the courtiers of big business. The GOP “brand” must change. While conservatives and business will remain part of a broad center-right coalition, the key question is: On what terms, and who calls the shots?
Let’s review some history. In 1980, as conservatives rallied to Ronald Reagan, many corporate leaders were enthusiastic supporters of former Texas governor John Connolly for the GOP presidential nomination; Connolly was a former conservative Democratic politician who looked and talked like a CEO. Others liked Senator Howard Baker and George H. W. Bush. Mindful of the Goldwater defeat, all these business leaders saw Reagan as too conservative to win. Most CEOs were more comfortable with a mainstream candidate closer to the political center.
One of the big internal fights in the Reagan administration pitted business interests against national-security conservatives. In the 1970s, hundreds of major corporations as well as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers had joined to form a private pro-trade group, the U.S.-USSR Trade and Economic Council (USTEC). While conservative hawks wanted to curb the flow of military-use items to Communist countries, USTEC lobbied to remove barriers to Soviet trade. The group opposed, for example, the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which placed trade limits on certain Communist-bloc countries that restricted emigration, as the USSR did with Jews and Evangelical Christians.
Cold War ancient history, you say? Okay, let’s go back to this summer and look at a crucial domestic- and constitutional-policy issue. In July 2013, House Republicans voted to remove some federal mandates in the No Child Left Behind Act and empower the states to formulate their own accountability systems and curricular standards. Strong opposition to this federalism-affirming legislation came from every Democrat in the House, the Obama administration, an array of leftist groups (including the ACLU, the Children’s Defense Fund, the National Education Association, the Center for American Progress Action Fund, and the Southern Poverty Law Center) and also from business interests led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable. Former Reagan education official Chester Finn Jr. rebuked the two business groups for their stance: “Both . . . joined the left . . . in savaging the Kline [House Republican] bill and demanding more federal regulation and control of education. . . . I suppose this is yet another sad example of corporate America succumbing to big-government-itis.”
In fact, since the days of Theodore Roosevelt and Progressive theorist Herbert Croly over a hundred years ago, business has done well enough working with the regulatory forces of the administrative state. As Milton Friedman often remarked, corporate executives are not fans of the free market. They are often involved in “rent-seeking” behavior, lobbying the federal government for special privileges at the expense of others.
Not only will corporate America readily depart from conservatives on a matter such as state control of education, it also appears to have little use for the various other constituencies within the conservative coalition. Social conservatives advocating life, pro-family policy, and religious freedom; national-security conservatives defending American sovereignty, arguing for a strong military, and working to meet the challenges of China and radical Islam; national-cohesion conservatives aiming to curb racial, ethnic, and gender preferences and the pernicious ideology of multiculturalism; and free-market conservatives fighting statist measures – all these find that business leaders are often either indifferent to their concerns or lined up on the other side of the barricades, alongside the forces of the leftist establishment. Better to shun supposedly extreme right-wing ideologues than challenge liberal orthodoxy.