Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Chamber of Commerce to Oppose 'Anti-Business' Candidates

The 2008 presidential campaign has taken a decidedly populist tone, with candidates from Edwards, to McCain, to Huckabee, to Obama railing against the powerful elites in Washington and on Wall Street, who are prospering at the expense of the little guy. If the momentum stays with the populist candidates, it may mean higher taxes on businesses, more regulation, and a further slowing of efforts to expand international trade. Certainly the Democratic Congress is willing to advance such an agenda, as soon as there's a willing president in the White House (or perhaps even sooner).

Rather than waiting to see if the prevailing winds change, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is laying down a marker:

Reacting to what it sees as a potentially hostile political climate, Donohue said, the chamber will seek to punish candidates who target business interests with their rhetoric or policy proposals, including congressional and state-level candidates.

Although Donohue shied away from precise figures, he indicated that his organization would spend in excess of the approximately $60 million it spent in the last presidential cycle. That approaches the spending levels planned by the largest labor unions.

The chamber president is scheduled to announce the broad outlines of the organization's plans for the 2008 election and beyond at a news conference here today. Donohue also plans to fire a rhetorical warning shot across the bow of candidates considered unfriendly to business.

It may already be too late to influence the parties' selection of their presidential candidates. With Iowa and New Hampshire behind, the field of likely candidates for each party is rapidly shrinking.

But while the Chamber might end up stuck with candidates it doesn't like, that doesn't mean it's too late to influence the election agenda. Spending tens of millions of dollars on political donations and issue ads in the months and weeks before the election might significantly influence both the presidential election and congressional races. Given our string of close elections, the Chamber could back enough candidates to head off any truly egregious legislation.

But efforts like this are in danger of winding up as rearguard actions. Polls show a greater and greater percentage of the American public are distrustful of international trade. Similarly, trust in 'major companies' has been falling consistently since the Harris poll first began asking the question 40 years ago. The public view on these policy questions has continued to deteriorate even as the United States has enjoyed an extraordinary period of relatively stable, inflation-free growth for most of the last 25 years.

The large companies and multinationals that benefit greatly from the low-tax, low-tariff regime the U.S. has maintained for decades stand to be big losers if the American public becomes convinced that this is a zero-sum game. Increasingly, that is their view. Where consumers are the biggest beneficiaries from low-cost, high-quality products, most see imports as nothing more than a job killer. While workers benefit from higher wages when their employers are unencumbered by excessive taxes and regulations, many no longer believe this to be true.

The Chamber will be wasting its money if they spend it to curry favor with a few politicians, but fail to try to educate the public on why open markets benefit everyone.

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