Jonathan Chait

Conservative Activists vs. Business

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One hardy perennial theme of American political commentary is "tension between the GOP's right-wing base and business elite." The story is almost always overblown. The interests of the conservative activists and the rich folks is often orthogonal (say, one wants to ban gay marriage, the other wants to cut the capital gains tax.) Sometimes there's an asymmetry of passion (activists care way more about impeaching Clinton, business elites care a lot more about a free trade deal.)

But almost never do you see a straight, head-on collision between the two. Indeed, one of the functions of the conservative movement is to channel the passions of conservative activism into business-friendly ways. But now you're seeing a full, head-on collision:

The Republican coalition of business and tea party supporters that spurred the party to nearly unprecedented gains in 2010 is breaking down over the debt limit debate.

At the center of the breakdown is Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), whose plan to hand responsibility for raising the debt limit to President Obama has proved a complete non-starter among both tea party backers and the conservative base, groups that want the GOP to reject any increase.

Meanwhile, business interests are pushing hard for Congress to raise the limit, for fear of economic consequences. The Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable and other like-minded groups say the debt limit needs to be raised to avoid economic calamity, and the conservative Wall Street Journal editorial board has embraced McConnell’s controversial plan.

Who will win? I usually bet on the people with the money. But I don't have total confidence -- I can't think of an example of conservative activists so directly opposing business. And the current paralysis of the debt ceiling negotiations seems to reflect the fact that the House GOP caucus is simply to torn between competing impulses to do anything.

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