The Chamber of Commerce has made a new resolution for 2014: "No fools on our ticket."
It's a resolution with some teeth: the Chamber is planning to spend up to $50 million to build a fool-free Republican majority in the Senate. Or at least one with no new fools.
The Chamber's no-fools focus was rightly seen as a swipe at the tea party, whose decidedly foolish nominees in 2010 and 2012 cost Republicans four or five seats in the Senate. Conservatives immediately swiped back. "It takes a truly foolish consultant to declare war on the party's most energized troops," grumbled Quin Hillyer at National Review. Over at RedState, Daniel Horowitz claimed the move reflected "the efforts of party leadership and their corporate allies to keep the Republican Party a small tent – one which stands for nothing and appeals to nobody."
Liberals, on the other hand, greeted the news with cautious optimism. While Josh Marshall, editor for Talking Point Memo, warned that the Chamber's power play would be "a difficult thing to pull off," at the same time he allowed that it "could be a major move." There's reason to believe the Chamber's resolution is indeed a major move. But it requires first sorting out what's new in this story.
What's not new: tensions between the Chamber of Commerce and the GOP's conservative base. The relationship has always been more a marriage of convenience than a match made in heaven. In the 1950s, conservatives castigated the Chamber for supporting trade with China at a time when the right was calling for a boycott of all goods made in communist countries. Twenty years later conservatives felt the Chamber was insufficiently antagonistic toward collective bargaining.
When the Chamber of Commerce came out in support of Clinton's healthcare law in the 1990s, National Review was ready to write off the organization all together. Arguing that "the Chamber has abandoned its traditionally conservative positions on free trade, taxes, health-care mandates, family leave, and school choice," the magazine suggested true conservatives join the National Federation of Independent Business instead. And yet after each of these dust-ups, the Chamber has always been welcomed back with open arms – so long as its open wallet came back, too.
So what is new? With this latest salvo, the Chamber is building on its post-shutdown vow to do something about the tea party. This time, it's not just a particular issue causing the disagreement, but the conservative base itself. Unlike, say, immigration reform, about which the Chamber and tea party conservatives disagree, this issue can't be shelved. Which means this time, the Chamber of Commerce and the conservative base may be headed for divorce court – with a nasty custody battle over the Republican Party in the offing.
And frankly, it's about time. The GOP civil war – the centerpiece of political commentary since the end of the 2012 election – never quite got underway. As Michael Tomasky pointed out, it's not a war when only one side is fighting. The Republican leadership repeatedly relented to the tea party: on sequestration, on the government shutdown, on the debt-ceiling showdown. But now the Chamber of Commerce, along with the National Republican Senatorial Committee, has decided to fight back. Whether the two sides will end up reconciled or permanently estranged is anyone's guess, but it's shaping up to be 2014's most interesting political showdown.