Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The GOP and its Interest Groups

This report from Steve Benen about utilities quitting the Chamber of Commerce over climate issues strikes me as potentially very significant news. It's also a good excuse to think about the reasons for the general Republican strategy as they react to the 2006 and 2008 elections, and whether it's a long-run viable strategy.

By following a rejectionist strategy of opposing anything Obama proposes, Republicans give up the chance to reach compromises that can protect their interest group allies.

Republican Members of Congress may choose this strategy because they think it will be best for their electoral prospects in the long run, but they also may choose it because they believe primary electorates will demand it.

Primary electorates, in turn, may demand rejectionist strategies because they are prompted to do so by Republican opinion leaders. And why do Republican opinion leaders demand absolute opposition to Obama and the Democrats? Without getting into their true beliefs, it's certainly the case that they have an economic incentive to do so. Indeed, and even more troubling for Republican politicians, opinion leaders who depend not on votes but on ratings (or book sales, or other revenues) are almost certainly better off with Democrats in the White House and controlling Congress.

This brings us back to interest groups, specifically groups with purely economic interests. Companies and their associations that normally ally with Republicans do want Republicans in power in Washington. But when Republicans are in a minority, will they prefer the GOP to follow a rejectionist or an accommodationist strategy? I don't think there's an absolute answer to that one. Rejectionist strategies are best if they work (on climate, for example, no bill is preferable to a compromise bill), but not if they don't work (a compromise bill is better than a bill written by environmentalists with no business input). But if businesses believe that compromise is best, and the party they look to won't consider that option, then the party might have a problem.

It's a bit more complicated than that, however. In an era of networked parties, the Washington leadership of the interest groups themselves may be so closely tied to the party that they lose touch with the immediate economic interests of individual businesses. That may be what's happening with the Chamber. Rejectionist ideas on climate change may be caused more by partisan and ideologically based leadership than by the actual interests of specific businesses, and as a result the Chamber is losing members. It's not certain that's the case -- it could be that most members simply are better off with rejectionist strategies, and so the splitters are just in the minority -- but if not, the really scary thing for Republicans here is that they may be running up to the edge of where Beck and Rush are about to lose a lot of important institutional support for the party.

On health care, Republican-oriented businesses simply worked directly with Democrats to reach a compromise. Now, on climate, Republican-oriented interest groups are going public with internal conflict. In both cases, the Republican party risks becoming increasingly marginalized. At this point, it's probably nothing that a solid electoral victory in 2010 or 2012 can't fix, but I do think there's a real danger here for Republicans if they remain in the minority for long. The stereotype of Republicans as strictly limited to a mainly religious faction in the South and the upper Mountain West has been a big exaggeration, but it doesn't have to stay that way.

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