David Brat has gotten quite a bit of attention not only for beating Eric Cantor, but also for how he has taken on the business lobbies over immigration. Brat accused Cantor of “running on the Chamber of Commerce growth plan. The Chamber Commerce, the Business Roundtable, if you’re in big business he’s good for you, but if you’re in any other group, it’s not so good for you.”
This is interesting because it pretty closely tracks how many, many voters looked at Mitt Romney. In the 2012 exit poll, 53 percent of the voters thought that Romney’s economic agenda primarily favored the wealthy while only 34 percent believed that Romney’s policies would primarily favor the middle-class.
The Republican establishment responded to this view of the Republicans as the party of the rich by putting out an “autopsy” in which the RNC report recommended moving Republican policy even closer to the priorities of the Chamber of Commerce by adopting amnesty-first, increasing low-skill immigration, and delaying immigration enforcement (a set of policies now described as
“comprehensive immigration reform”), along with deemphasizing social conservatism — as if Romney and Paul Ryan could have spoken any less about social conservatism short of a vow of silence. The first author’s name on the Republican National Committee autopsy is a lobbyist you say? And he is the nephew of an even more prominent lobbyist who is shilling for the billionaires on “comprehensive immigration reform”? Shocking.
This isn’t to demonize the Chamber of Commerce. They are an interest group. Their interests will often overlap with the interests of the center-right. The problem is acting as if the agenda of the Washington business lobbies constitutes the national interest. In 2012, the Republicans came across as the party of business owners and that’s it. And it wasn’t just Mitt Romney. If anything, Mitt Romney came across more reasonable on this point than many of his more conservative opponents who proposed even larger tax cuts on high-earners and seemed to relish the thought of imposing a tax increase on low-earners.
The arguments that Romney made (about how everyone would benefit from the indirect effects of cutting taxes and regulation on business owners) seemed originally crafted for the business lobbies and then retrofit to appeal to a wider audience. But as Henry Olsen pointed out, many voters are skeptical about a plan where seemingly all the direct benefits will be going to business owners.
That doesn’t mean that the Republicans should become an anti-business party or even an anti-big business party. Republicans just need to get better at treating the business lobbies as one (very important) interest group within the coalition. That means that, along with being the relatively lower spending, lower regulation, and lower tax party, Republicans can also be the party that offers a more free-market-oriented path to catastrophic health insurance for those who don’t have employer-provided insurance (or who fear what would happen if they lost their current job and had to make do with a series of part-time jobs). That is just one example.
This also leaves populist conservatives with a challenge. It isn’t enough to oppose the Chamber of Commerce on immigration and otherwise go along with the priorities of the business lobbies. It isn’t even enough to oppose crony capitalism. Populist conservatives need to show persuadable voters that the priorities of the middle class and low earners who aspire to upward mobility can also be served by the relatively smaller government party. That still leaves a place for the Chamber of Commerce, but it also opens up spaces for many more persuadable voters.