The Chamber’s War on the Right Is So Wrong

by Quin Hillyer
It’s time to find ways to unite rather than fight.

If U.S. Chamber of Commerce strategist Scott Reed really wants “no loser candidates” and “no fools on our ticket,” as he told the Wall Street Journal last week, then he might want to start by banishing himself from any involvement with the 2014 elections. It takes a truly foolish Republican consultant to declare war on the party’s most energized troops — the same foolish politico who once advised Republicans to work in favor of gun control and who ran the incompetent 1996 presidential campaign of Bob Dole.

If Reed wants “no loser candidates,” presumably he will be working to rid his party not just of right-wing candidates such as Sharron Angle but also of aimless moderates such as Denny Rehberg, Rick Berg, Heather Wilson, and Tommy Thompson — 2012 Senate losers in, respectively, Montana, North Dakota, New Mexico, and Wisconsin. If Reed and the Chamber want to elect business-friendly, market-oriented congressmen, they will put aside issues that divide the Right, such as immigration “reform,” and focus only on issues that unite not just all those who lean right but even a big chunk of the vast, ideologically nonaligned “center” as well — issues such as Obamacare.

And if Speaker John Boehner and House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan aren’t bent on political suicide, they will ignore any Chamber entreaties to take up immigration reform at any point next year, and probably as long as Barack Obama is president. Even for some of us who aren’t anti-immigration hardliners, it is patently obvious that any immigration bill Barack Obama would agree to sign would be so full of left-wing nonsense as to be unpalatable to anybody who cares a whit about borders, law enforcement, and constructive acculturation. Worse, from the standpoint of political strategy and tactics, nothing could possibly be more senseless than to repeat George W. Bush’s well-intentioned but disastrous focus on immigration reform, which horribly fractured the center-right coalition and helped cost Republicans a Senate majority they have never regained.

Boehner has raised serious fears on the right about this issue by hiring Rebecca Tallent — a former McCain immigration specialist and a former wonk at the amnesty-friendly Bipartisan Policy Center — to “lead immigration efforts in the House.” The question is, why should the House mess with the issue at all in 2014? It’s not urgent — not at all like the loss of insurance and freedom inherent in Obamacare, or like the ticking debt bomb, or the job-destroying explosion of regulations from Obama’s administrative minions throughout the federal government.

It seems as if Boehner and Ryan don’t comprehend how dispirited conservative activists already are, specifically in response to a wholly unexpected gut punch of Ryan trading away sequestration and $32 billion in additional domestic spending for little more than a pocket full of mumbles. Moreover, they seem not to recognize that only when conservatives are energized as political volunteers do Republicans make big electoral gains (as in 1980, 1994, and 2010) or hold ground against determined Democratic assaults (as in 2004, when Bush 43 won a second term largely on the backs of social conservatives turning out in heavy numbers to fight homosexual marriage in state initiatives).

Granted, up until now, most of the scorched earth among Republicans has come from right-wing pressure groups such as Heritage Action and Club for Growth, the latter of which won’t enter races for candidates unless it can find opponents to carpet-bomb like its own private Dresdens. But at least these groups — together, sometimes appearing like a sort of Nihilist Caucus — tend not to insult and drive away entire cadres of activists. The Club might blast moderate adversaries, but it doesn’t denigrate those adversaries’ supporters the way the Chamber is doing now — and the Club actually has a rather strong winning percentage, not just in primaries, but in general elections as well.

From both directions, though, the Right’s internecine warfare is horribly counterproductive, and wiser heads should try to find ground on which to unite. Importantly, the need to unify does not mean for the establishment to “co-opt” the Tea Party, despite the supercilious aims of Reed (again) as stated in a 2011 New York Times Magazine article: “That’s the secret to politics: trying to control a segment of people without those people recognizing that you’re trying to control them.”

Mr. Reed is wrong. The secret isn’t to control some unwashed “segment,” but instead to listen to them and incorporate their concerns into your mission. In fact, if done right, such incorporation can attract new adherents from the right and the center at the same time — because most of the American electorate isn’t consistently ideological, but attitudinal instead.

Alabama’s conservative U.S. senator Jeff Sessions increasingly has been pushing the notion that Republicans should make more concerted efforts to appeal to blue-collar workers, and he’s right. Ronald Reagan proved it’s possible to maintain a solid conservatism while reaching beyond the boardrooms and pulpits; Mitt Romney lost in 2012 largely because so many Rust Belt workers, no fans of Obama, nonetheless stayed home rather than stand in line to vote for someone perceived as a white-collar, white-bread, East Coast money changer.

To their credit, sometimes-conservative House majority leader Eric Cantor and conservative senator Mike Lee of Utah have been pushing agendas aimed at appealing to working families. One need not agree with every agenda item to appreciate the thought behind these efforts.

Unlike the Chamber and the Club for Growth, Sessions, Cantor, and Lee aren’t working to find enemies on the right to punish, but rather to make new friends. To do anything else, in an election year so freighted with significance as 2014 will be, would take a real fool.

— Quin Hillyer is a contributing editor for National Review.

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