Why Is the Chamber of Commerce So Mad at Ted Cruz?

Donohue Photograph by Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

On Monday Tom Donohue told Ted Cruz to shut up—kind of. He was goaded into it. A reporter at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast asked Donohue, president and chief executive officer of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, if the Texas Republican senator should “sit down and shut up.”

“That’s one of the things we could work with him on,” said Donohue. He said he respects the Tea Party’s dedication to small government, but couldn’t get behind efforts to shut down the government or threaten a U.S. debt default.

And so, he told reporters, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce would begin evaluating candidates for Congress in 2014 based, as my Bloomberg News colleague Laura Litvan writes, on “their willingness to secure the nation’s long-term economic health and the broader interests of business.” It’s hard to buy a good Congress. Maybe he’ll get it right in 2014.

Of course, for the last four years, the Chamber has been spending its formidable funds to elect conservative idealists committed to making President Obama’s two terms difficult and fruitless, efforts Donahue himself supported. When the House passed the Affordable Care Act in 2010, the Chamber stated that the vote “ignore[d] the will of the American people.

This $900 billion, 2800 page bill is not health care reform. It fails to fix what is broken and risks breaking what already works. It will drive up health care costs and make coverage less affordable for businesses and families. It marks a major step down the road to a government-run health care system. It will further expand entitlements and explode the deficit, and raises taxes by a half a trillion dollars at the worst possible time. American jobs and growth are at risk thanks to the decision by the House today. Should the legislation passed by the House today become law, the Chamber will work through all available avenues—regulatory, legislative, legal, and political—to fix its flaws and minimize its potentially harmful impacts. Through the largest issue advocacy and voter education program in our history, we will encourage citizens to hold their elected officials accountable when they choose a new Congress this November.

The Chamber spent $32 million that year on issue advertising, the vast majority of which went to support Republican candidates. It spent $2.4 million dollars in support of the Republican State Leadership Committee, electing Republican state legislatures that have since helped swing the House farther to the right.

At the time, it seemed like Donohue had bet right. From Devin Leonard’s Bloomberg Businessweek profile of Donohue that year:

On Nov. 2, the Republican Party won control of the House of Representatives and increased its presence in the Senate by six seats, making Obama’s chief tormentor even more powerful than he was before. The chamber supported the winner in 38 of 59 contests. “How do I feel? Tired,” Donohue said the next day. “But that’s fine. I think our guys did a great job.”

The day after the elections, he announced that “Americans voted for jobs and economic growth.” Then, in 2011, the Republican-led House, exactly the Congress he backed, asked for concessions under the threat of failing to renew the debt ceiling, exactly what had him so deeply concerned this morning. If it gave him pause at the time, he didn’t respond by closing the Chamber’s checkbook.

For the 2012 elections, the Chamber targeted 9 Senate races and 31 House seats, in all but two supporting a Republican. In an attempt to swing Senate races, it spent money on ad buys opposing the Affordable Care Act. An anti-Obamacare ad it put on heavy rotation in Florida was titled “Nightmare.”

The Chamber is now apparently upset that conservatives took all that seriously. This morning, Donahue used a tennis metaphor to explain his frustration with Cruz. “If you’re going to rush to the net all the time, you better have a lot of movement to the left and right,” he said. The problem isn’t rushing the net—it’s not having any game when you get there. Donahue helped elect idealists, but apparently expected them to have just the right amount of cynicism, too, so that they’d know when to give up on their principles and cut a deal. It’s not that the Chamber doesn’t like players. It doesn’t like losers.

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