Why Big Business Won’t Abandon the Tea Party

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Oct. 18 2013 6:43 PM

Tea-ism

Why big business won’t abandon the Tea Party.

Rep. Raul Labrador
Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

It didn’t take long for the conservatives who had demanded that Obamacare be defunded to be compared to terrorists. The smears rained down on them on every day of the shutdown. Unlike in 2011, when a Democrats’ off-the-record comparison of their tactics to the dynamite-vest-brigade sparked a day of outrage, the conservatives couldn’t get anybody else to care. Too many people, not just Democrats, were reaching for Roget’s Book of Violent Analogies.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

“I don’t know of anybody in the business community who takes the side of the Taliban minority,” said Dirk Van Dongen, chief lobbyist for the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors, to the Washington Post.

“So many in the House are hard-right reactionary Tea Party,” said Al Hoffman, a reliable GOP donor, in an interview with Politico. “Those Republicans, it appears, are ready to self-immolate.”

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Both Politico and the Post have discovered a business community that wants to tame the Tea Party. USA Today reports that the business community is going to rescue Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson, a reliable Boehner ally whose mostly rural district is being targeted by the Club for Growth. The 1 percent is back, baby, and this time it’s on the right side.

The counterrevolution is overrated. There are only three or four “Tea Party conservatives” on the target list so far. Michigan Rep. Kerry Bentivolio and Tennessee Rep. Scott DesJarlais, repeatedly cited as the first backlash targets, had already guaranteed primary challenges by, respectively, winning an election after the incumbent had failed to make the ballot and covering up his mistress’s abortion.

Anyway, they’re outnumbered on the other side: Republican senators or Senate candidates in Alaska, Colorado, Iowa, Kentucky, South Carolina, and South Dakota are all fending off Tea Partiers. Just this week, Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran, who got to Washington in 1979 and has often been on the “aye” side of a deal, drew a challenger from his state’s senate. Months ago, Karl Rove’s founding of the Conservative Victory Project was teased on A1 of the New York Times as a force that could prevent “future Todd Akins.” It’s raised no money apart from a transfer from another Rove-linked PAC.

Could the ratio change if “the establishment” wanted it to? Of course—but that’s assuming that big financial interests are naturally set against the Tea Party. They are not. They helped create the Tea Party. In the aggregate, if you leave aside the contractors who might benefit from earmarks (RIP), they’re better off when Tea Partiers run the House.

The Tea Party, after all, is not wholly set against the GOP’s business class. It’s just the latest populist movement funded and fueled by the Big Business. The “anti-tax clubs” of the 1920s, which moved the Republican Congress to drop income tax rates, were literally organized by the allies of Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon. The (mostly incompetent) opponents of the New Deal, like the Liberty League and the National Organization of Manufacturers, coalesced when conservative donors realized they, the captains of industry, weren’t compelling advocates. “The capitalist system can be destroyed more effectively by having men of means defend it then by importing a million Reds from Moscow to attack it,” said one Texas businessman who backed the Liberty League, according to Invisible Hands author Kim Phillips-Fein.

None of this means that the Tea Party is “astro-turf.” Every successful political movement needs wealthy backers. And when you put aside the shutdown, the Tea Party members who now run the House are producing much more for the financial industry, for small business organizations, than Democrats would if they took back the House. No one’s looking to primary the average Class of 2010 Republican because he’s trying to repeal Dodd-Frank or challenge EPA rules or prevent any changes in tax law that would anger the donors.

That’s clear even from the donors-hate-the-Tea Party genre of interviews. One of Politico’s donor-rebels is Paul Singer, who has no stated problem with the policies endorsed by Heritage Action or the Club for Growth or Ted Cruz or the Tea Party. He’s angry at “the GOP at large losing race after race.” Five years ago, the Tea Party was a fresh, unexpected brand switch for a Republican Party that blamed its 2006 and 2008 election losses on George W. Bush.

Polling since 2011 has revealed a steady decline for the Tea Party. Some of that has to do with a liberal pushback that linked the Tea Party to the largest donors to Americans for Prosperity or FreedomWorks, et al. The Democrats of the 1930s called the Liberty Leaguers the “cellophane league,” because they were “a DuPont product and you could see right through them.” Swap in “Koch” for “DuPont” and you’ve got the attack that, eventually—in the media, at least—fouled up the Tea Party brand.

But what’s the donors’ plan, anyway? What’s the business-friendly label that’s going to be more potent than the Tea Party? Every successful movement of economic conservatives has been led in public by the non-rich, from the anti-tax farms of the 1920s to the property-tax-hating suburbanites in the 1970s to the “family farmers” who are, we’re told, the real victims of the estate tax. How do you make Rove-ism or Goldman Sachs-ism as popular as the Tea Party is, even now?

“The media used to love to say that politicians were worthless because they were controlled by Wall Street,” said Idaho Rep. Raul Labrador at a Heritage Foundation-sponsored forum this week. “They were controlled by business. They were controlled by special interests. The only group that has stood up to Wall Street, to the special interests, to the big businesses, has been the Tea Party. For the last two weeks, I’ve read about that in your papers, but it has been in a derisive manner. We are uncontrollable—because Wall Street can’t control us. We are uncontrollable because business can’t control us. Instead of praising that, that which the American people have been waiting for for the last 200 years, politicians listening to the people instead of the ruling class, you guys have been writing about that in a derisive manner. I think that’s really sad.”

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