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What the Export-Import Bank fight says about the state of conservatism

Senate Democrats are planning to take up legislation this month to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank, something the White House supports and that is currently dividing the Republican Party. Before you say, “Ugh, a story about an obscure government agency I’ve barely heard of” and go searching for cool Tim Howard gifs, stick with me here. This actually gets to the heart of the battle to define conservatism, probably the defining ideological struggle of our time.

Almost out of nowhere, conservatives are suddenly campaigning against the Ex-Im Bank, which has to be reauthorized or its charter will expire in the fall and it will go out of business. If you want to get up to speed, here’s an explainer on the bank, but the quickie version is that the bank arranges loans to support U.S. exports, often by helping foreign companies buy U.S. goods. It doesn’t cost the taxpayer anything (the bank operates at a profit), but its critics say that it favors companies with political power.

Whether the Ex-Im Bank is good for the economy is a complicated question. But the bank’s effect on the economy isn’t what people are arguing about. Tea partyish conservatives have an ideological objection to the bank, not a practical one. They say it’s “crony capitalism,” so they want to kill it. While liberals have made similar arguments, today the White House wants it reauthorized, as do many congressional Democrats. The Republican leadership is caught in the middle, between its loyalty to business interests, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, which want to see the bank reauthorized, and tea partyers who have discovered in this issue a way to prove their independence from big business and their devotion to pure free markets. Which is why House Speaker John Boehner, for whom discomfort seems to have become a permanent emotional state, is now hedging on whether he’ll support reauthorization (new House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy has come out against the Bank).

As obscure as the agency may have been up until now, this argument does get to the heart of what it means to be a conservative. For many years, the different parts of the conservative coalition happily adopted each other’s ideals and supported each other’s agendas, at least to pay lip service to them. Pro-lifers signed on to unfettered access to guns, business conservatives assented to bellicose foreign policy, social conservatives convinced themselves that low capital gains taxes are the very essence of freedom and so on. It was an eternal circle of ideological logrolling, and as long as it helped Republicans get elected, everybody benefited.

But tea partyers don’t like that arrangement. It isn’t that there are many elements on the broad Republican ideological agenda they disagree with — they’re almost all pro-life, pro-gun and so on. But they like to think of themselves as rebels fighting against the go-along-get-along culture of Washington, so an issue like this is a perfect way for them to show their independence and ideological purity. By opposing crony capitalism, they can say their commitment to free markets is so fervent that they don’t mind bucking big business, which tends to prefer markets whose rules are written to benefit them rather than markets that are truly free. And that most of them probably never heard of the Ex-Im Bank until a month ago makes it easier to oppose. Tea partyers are being aided by “reform conservatives” who also oppose the Ex-Im Bank (as Ezra Klein explains, the reform conservatives’ project involves moving the party to the center in some ways and to the right in others).

The test for reform conservatives and tea partyers is whether in opposing crony capitalism they’re willing to go after not just a relatively minor agency like the Ex-Im Bank, but also more powerful interests. This is an easy fight to take on, especially since they’ll win if Congress does nothing. The question is whether they’d pick any fights when the stakes are higher.