The debate over whether the federal government will continue operating and paying its debts for the foreseeable future has revealed deep intramural divisions among Republicans in Congress, but those divisions are perhaps even clearer away from the Hill, at the organizations that fund Republican campaigns. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is urging Republicans to keep the lights on, represents a large section of the business community, and it hasn’t been timid about political spending, betting $24 million on Senate races and another $7 million on House races in last year’s election. Yet only six of the Chamber’s 37 congressional candidates were elected, and the group seems to be losing the fight for influence with Republicans to the more conservative Club for Growth.
The Club for Growth directly spent $17 million in the election, according to the group, but it focused its expenditures on G.O.P. primaries. As my colleague Lori Montgomery reports, that strategy has brought the Club enormous success. It spent $5 million helping freshman Sen. Ted Cruz, one of the leading spokesmen for the reactionary wing of the party, win his primary in Texas against a more established candidate. The club has pushed no fewer than six moderate Republicans out of office since 2006. The organization can force members of the G.O.P. caucus to adopt more conservative positions, and it has demonstrated its clout on several occasions already this year, causing embarrassment for the Republican leadership. Most recently, lawmakers who received the Club’s support, most notably Cruz, have adopted a straightforward hostage-taking strategy, threatening to close the government as a way of attacking President Obama’s health-care law.
Interestingly, these two organizations both say they want the same thing: limited government that is friendly to business. “We try to find the most pro-growth position and push people as close to that as we can,” Chris Chocola, the president of the Club for Growth, told Montgomery. Obviously, if this is really is the Club’s goal, then their current actions are counterproductive in the extreme. A government shutdown, not to mention a default, would have serious economic consequences. In fact, Cruz’s negotiating strategy, even if it doesn’t lead to shutdown, is probably constraining the economy on a smaller scale already. Stock prices fell on Friday after the House approved a continuing resolution that would end funding for Obamacare.
Surely the Club for Growth understands the risks of its strategy. Its donors are financially savvy people, all of whom have plenty of wealth to lose if a federal default causes another global financial crisis.
I don’t have an explanation for the Club’s self-destructive behavior. Still, the conflict between these two conservative business organizations should be heartening for those on the left, and not just because it is always fun to see your opponents fighting among themselves. The most important lesson of the story of the Club for Growth is that money isn’t everything.
First, our society’s wealthiest people don’t always act in their own self-interest. Just like everyone else, they subscribe to various ideologies that cloud their judgment of the facts. The Citizens United decision didn’t necessarily expose our political process to manipulation by inhuman profit maximizers. Instead, the manipulators are people with very strange, very human and flawed ideas, such as technologist Peter Thiel, one of the Club’s major donors. They also happen to be very rich, but their wealth doesn’t seem to have affected their worldview.
The Club has also shown that political strategy matters more than financial resources. The organization is clobbering the Chamber of Commerce not because it is spending more money, but because it is spending its money more effectively.
Finally, neither the Club’s electoral strategy nor its donors’ crazy ideas would have succeeded at all if it weren’t for the fact that its views are widely shared among conservative Republican voters. That fact should be heartening for everyone who believes that a large group of people would find their ideas compelling. Having money doesn’t hurt, but you have to know how you’re going to use it and what you’re going to say. It’s just too bad that at the moment, the group that has deployed its resources most successfully happens to be the Club for Growth.