For years, Republicans benefited from economic growth. So did pretty much everyone else, of course. But I have something specific in mind. Politically, when the economy is booming -- or merely improving at a satisfactory clip -- the distinction between being pro-business and pro-market is blurry. The distinction is also fuzzy when the economy is shrinking or imploding.
But when the economy is simply limping along -- not good, not disastrous -- like it is now, the line is easier to see. And GOP politicians typically don't want to admit they see it.
Just to clarify, the difference between being pro-business and pro-market is categorical. A politician who is a "friend of business" is exactly that, a guy who does favors for his friends. A politician who is pro-market is a referee who will refuse to help protect his friends (or anyone else) from competition unless the competitors have broken the rules. The friend of business supports industry-specific or even business-specific loans, grants, tariffs or tax breaks. The pro-market referee opposes special treatment for anyone.
Politically, the reason the lines get blurry in good times and bad is that in a boom, the economic pie is growing fast enough that the friend and his competitor alike can prosper. In bad times, when politicians are desperate to get the economy going, no one in Washington wants to seem like an enemy of the "job creators."
But in a time when people bitterly wonder, "Is this as good as it gets?" Republicans have to decide whether European-level growth means we should have European-style policies. In Europe, big corporations are national institutions where big labor unions collect their dues -- with help from the state.
Democrats, who often look longingly at the way they do things across the pond, don't have the same dilemma as Republicans. For a century or more, progressives have believed in public-private partnerships, industrial policy, "Swopism," corporatism and other forms of picking winners and losers. The winners always promise to deliver the "jobs of tomorrow" in return for help from government today. (Solyndra is running behind on keeping its end of the deal.)
Many Republicans are rhetorically against this sort of thing, but in practice, they're for it. (Even Ronald Reagan supported trade protections for Harley-Davidson.) This is especially true at the state level, where GOP governors are willing to do anything to seduce businesses their way. Texas is a good example. Gov. Rick Perry has been heroic in keeping taxes and regulatory burdens low. But he's also helped his friends -- a lot. Few on the right in Texas care, because Texas has been doing so much better than the rest of the country.
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