By Steve Pearlstein
Wednesday, September 29, 2010; A16
For all you in the business community who are rooting for a Republican victory in the November elections, a bit of unsolicited advice: Be careful what you wish for.
You're probably thinking that with Republicans in control of one or both houses of Congress, business will be back on top again, setting the agenda, rolling back the socialist tide and forcing an anti-business administration into a humiliating retreat.
In reality, what you'll get is political paralysis for the next two years, and quite possibly longer than that.
Just ask Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, the new Republican kingpin and enforcer on Capitol Hill. DeMint told Bloomberg Businessweek last week that his goal for the next Senate is "complete gridlock." As far as DeMint is concerned, there's no place for bipartisan compromise or consensus or some "watered-down Republican philosophy," as he put it. For DeMint, this is war. The only acceptable outcome is total victory, and any Republican who dares to disagree will be treated as a traitor during the next election cycle.
The good news, of course, is that you won't have to spend a minute over the next two years worrying about tax increases or climate-change legislation or that odious card check idea that would open the doors again to union organizing. The bad news is that you can kiss goodbye tax reform, education reform, infrastructure investment or any new trade treaties. With DeMint cracking the ideological whip in the Senate, and a new crop of young and hungry conservatives beginning to take charge of the Republican caucus in the House, Democrats will be in no mood to strike any deals on these business priorities. Ditto for a Democratic president readily wielding his veto.
And then there's that matter of regulatory uncertainty you've been complaining about. If you think it's bad now, just wait until next year when the Obama administration tries to do through regulation what it will no longer be able to achieve through legislation. Republican committee chairman will respond with hearings and investigations and appropriations riders in an attempt to block the new regulations. In the end, nothing will be resolved until the issues are subject to years of federal court litigation.
I know what you're thinking. You're thinking that, once the heat of the election season has passed, cooler heads will prevail and DeMint and the other anti-government zealots will return to their rightful place on the fringes of the political system, leaving it to the grown-ups to get things done. Don't kid yourselves. You're about to create a political monster that you can't control, one bent not on reforming but on destroying the institutional framework that allows an advanced industrial economy to grow and thrive.
Here is the hard political reality: You can't expect to support and finance political candidates who preach that government is menacing and wasteful, that public employees are incompetent and corrupt, that taxes are always too high and destroy jobs, and then turn around and expect that the government will respond to your demands to hold down the cost of health care, or fund basic research, or provide good schools, efficient courts and reliable transportation systems.
This doesn't mean the business community should run out and support liberal or Democratic candidates, or abandon the party that favors smaller government, low tax rates and light-touch regulation. What it does mean, however, is that you shouldn't encourage a political dynamic in which the goal is total victory, compromise is considered defeat and moderates are driven out.
It's convenient to blame the media, or cable news or the blogosphere for this state of political polarization. To that list of culprits I'd add you - business leaders who, in order to score modest wins in legislative or regulatory battles, make common cause with those who trample on the truth, poison the political conversation, demonize opponents and undermine respect and support for government.
Criticize President Obama - that's easy, guys. But is there anyone there at the Business Roundtable with the courage to criticize Jim DeMint?