It's no secret that the Republican Party has for some time been coping with an multifaceted identity crisis. With the election of Barack Obama, the fallout from the 2008 economic collapse, the emergence of the Tea Party, unrest among social conservatives, and a Congressional era marked by deep intra-party animosity, the GOP has been challenged to prove to the American people that it is the party to restore American prosperity and American values. The problem, of course, is that over the years Democrats have waged a relentless and fantastically effective rhetorical campaign against Republicans, to the point where many average Americans associate the GOP exclusively with Wall Street fat cats, K Street lobbyists, and unscrupulous corporate raiders.
Of course, anyone even basically familiar with the way the game is played in Washington, D.C., knows that when it comes to crony capitalism, Democrats' hands are just as dirty as their Republican foes. At the end of the day, it's all about money, and monied special interests invest millions to ensure that their political agenda is advanced on Capitol Hill. The recipients of this corporate largesse simply vary based on the interest in question. Despite this reality, the party of FDR has for decades successfully portrayed itself as a champion for the working man, the disenfranchised, and the downtrodden. Perhaps for the first time, however, the Democrats' blue collar facade is beginning to crack thanks to President Obama's unabashed and unprecedented expansion of corporate welfare in the name of economic and social "progress."
If ever Republicans had an opportunity to educate Americans on the vast difference between the virtues of free market capitalism versus the vices of crony capitalism, and if ever there was a time for the GOP to renew its commitment to the former, this is it. National Review's Jonah Goldberg recently discussed the fundamental difference between pro-market policies and pro-business policies and the distinction that must be made between the two in order to reverse America's gradual slide towards European-style socialism
"... the difference between being pro-business and pro-market is categorical. A politician who is a 'friend of business' is exactly that, a guy who does favors for his friends. A politician who is pro-market is a referee who will refuse to help protect his friends (or anyone else) from competition unless the competitors have broken the rules. The friend of business supports industry-specific or even business-specific loans, grants, tariffs, or tax breaks. The pro-market referee opposes special treatment for anyone. . . . Republicans have to decide whether European-level growth means we should have European-style policies. In Europe, big corporations are national institutions where big labor unions collect their dues — with help from the state."
Goldberg has it exactly right. The policies advocated by groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Club for Growth, for example, are pro-business, not pro-markets. Their goals are not principled in the least, they are personal and self-serving. Toward that end these groups invest millions of dollars in political campaigns expecting that if their candidate is elected, he or she will return the favor by way of legislative largesse. Most often this takes the form of industry or business-specific loans, grants, tariffs or tax breaks.
But being "pro-business" for these special interests means more than just having government put its thumb on the scale in the marketplace. They also expect their political minions to tilt the playing field in favor of business in the civil justice arena. This means they want limited accountability or none at all for their corporate wrongdoing. Hence, if they manufacture dangerous or defective products that cause harm to consumers, they want artificial caps on damages that limit the amounts they have to pay to the innocent victims of their neglect or malfeasance. They want shortened statutes of limitations that terminate their liability before their victims can file suit. And if consumers do make it to the courthouse in time, they want to create high hurdles that will impede the ability of injured consumers to bring their claims and they want evidentiary rules that prevent the jury from understanding the true nature of the special protections that they enjoy.
Truth be told, the "reforms" proposed by these kinds of organizations are just another form of the crony-capitalism that characterized the Wall Street bailout, the infamous Solyndra loan scandal, and the hiring of CGI to build the Obamacare website.
If Republicans wish to regain the mantle of true conservatism, then they must recommit themselves to the principles of liberty and justice for all espoused in our founding documents by standing against any policy or politician that works to provide unfair advantage to corporate benefactors while shielding them from accountability for their actions. They must show the American people that neither their integrity nor their vote is for sale, and that they take their role as public servants seriously. Absent this, the Democratic party will continue winning the PR war while steering our great nation merrily down a primrose path to mediocrity, and Republicans will be impotent to stop them.
Ken Connor is an attorney and co-author of "Sinful Silence: When Christians Neglect Their Civic Duty." He is also the Distinguished Fellow of Law and Human Dignity at the John Jay Institute's Center for a Just Society.