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Politicians Versus The Politics Industry

John Boehner
photo of John Boehner by Gage Skidmore

Elected government officials, at one point or another, have to govern. It’s their job.

But the political industry, represented by groups all over the political spectrum, is just an industry. Its job is to motivate its fervent supporters (the notorious “base”) and attract contributions, and then to generate results - or at least claim to generate results - so it can attract further contributions. Such organizations never win their wars and never lose them. Their whole reason for being is to keep fighting those wars indefinitely.

Officeholders, by and large, won their positions with the help of the political machines driving their party. But sometimes the practical reality of governance runs afoul of the never-ending push such groups exert.

An example surfaced earlier this month, after the House overwhelmingly passed a compromise budget measure. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, evidently lost patience with outside conservative groups that opposed the legislation before it was unveiled. He said such groups “have lost all credibility” and that they are “ridiculous.”

“I came here to cut the size of government. That’s exactly what this bill does,” Boehner went on to say. He also said that outside groups that oppose any level of compromise, many of which support the Tea Party movement, misled their followers and other Republicans and contributed to the disastrous outcome of the government shutdown.

Unsurprisingly, Boehner’s remarks were not warmly received. The State Conservatives Fund emailed its supporters accusing Boehner of declaring “war on conservatives.” Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., earned the ire of conservative groups too, as the coauthor of the budget compromise.

Boehner and Ryan are running up against the simple reality that officeholders and political interest groups may support one another, but they have fundamentally different goals. As Boehner points out, the new budget agreement actually reduces the projected deficit, if infinitesimally, over the next 10 years. That is a win, albeit a minor one.

Certainly lots of people, conservative and less so, would like to see the legislation do more toward shrinking the deficit. But only those who wear the blinders of single-issue politics would want to see it do more at an unlimited cost, or demand that it do more during a time when the balance of power in Washington leaves nothing more to be done.

If some conservative groups see Boehner’s criticism as an attack, not all of them do. Steve LaTourette, a former congressman from Ohio and head of the Republican Main Street Partnership, expressed satisfaction that Boehner finally pushed back against groups opposed to any compromise at all. “The audience for what the speaker had to say isn’t the 25 chuckleheads who are going to vote ‘no,’ no matter what happens,” LaTourette said of Boehner’s remarks.

With 169 Republicans backing the Bipartisan Budget Act and 62 opposed, it seems as if Boehner may not be the only working politician growing impatient with those who put ideological piety ahead of the ability to govern. That’s a terrible way to run a country, after all - but it is a good way to raise funds.

If politics is the art of the possible, than political organizing is the art of extracting every possible dollar.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s recently updated book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us,” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business.” Larry was also among the authors of the firm’s book The High Achiever’s Guide To Wealth.

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