Earlier this month, the United States Chamber of Commerce handed out its annual “Spirit of Enterprise” awards to those members of Congress who voted with the Chamber 70 percent of the time on its most important legislative initiatives of 2008. The only four Republican senators who did not receive the award were Jon Kyl, Jeff Sessions, Jim Inhofe and me - four of the most conservative members of the Senate.
What were the conservative offenses? We opposed the failed bailouts and stimulus. Which explains why many liberal Democrats scored higher, including Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton.
The Republican who scored lowest of all - that is, the Republican lawmaker supposedly least aligned with the nation’s business community - was Ron Paul, a strong constitutionalist famous for his strict adherence to a free- enterprise libertarian philosophy.
There is, in these facts, an important insight into the current unpopularity of the Republican Party. In an era of corporate welfare - which is lately taking on the characteristics of 1930s-style corporatism itself - the interests of big business are veering away from the interests of economic freedom and toward the interests of big government. Many Republicans in the past decade have followed a similar course, and the party - and our country - have paid dearly for the wrong turn.
For decades, the Republican Party has been portrayed by liberals (and the media) as a political country club - interested only in serving the interests of oligarchic corporate elites, insensitive to the needs of “real” Americans in the bottom 95 percent.
And for decades, Republicans consistently won elections - because the caricature was false. From President Richard Nixon’s silent majority through President Ronald Reagan’s realignment and the Contract With America, Republicans were not a party of economic elites as much as they were a party of economic freedom. They represented a clear, philosophical contrast to the watered-down socialism of the Democrats. Even when Republicans fell short on their promises of limited government, Americans believed the promises to be sincere nonetheless.
I doubt many Americans believe the promises anymore.
For the past eight years, the Republican experiment in big government hollowed out our core identity. In battles over immigration, spending, education and other “compassionate conservative” priorities, small-government conservatives were attacked by leading Republicans for choosing principle over poll-tested politics. It was in these battles that the long-alleged marriage between the Republican Party and corporate America was finally consummated.
Where Mr. Reagan fought to deregulate in the interests of industry competition, many recent Republican leaders have sought to regulate in the interests of industry leaders. That is why the lobbying industry has grown so successful in recent years: For the first time, both parties have become receptive to special interest pleadings.
That is also why conservative opposition to President Obama’s massive new spending agenda rings hollow in many ears. Even the most socialistic of big-government Democrats can credibly ask why Republicans are suddenly so worried about the dangers of big government.
The road back to Republican success is not to reinforce our weakened coalition of corporate interests, but to drop it altogether. Republicans shouldn’t be the party of business any more than they should be the party of labor - we’re supposed to be the party of freedom. We should get out of the business of picking winners and losers in the marketplace. We should not care who wins in fair fights between Microsoft and Apple, between CitiGroup and community banks, or between Home Depot and mom-and-pop hardware stores. All we should demand is a fair fight.
If Goliath beats David, so be it - just so long as he does it without corporate welfare.
Similarly, we should not tip the legal scales for either side in negotiations between Ford and the United Auto Workers. Instead, both sides should simply know that if their contract leads to competitive disadvantage, layoffs or bankruptcy, there will be no federal bailouts there to reward their mistakes.
It is none of the government’s business - let alone the Republican Party’s - whether banks make or deny risky loans, but only that we ensure lenders and borrowers bear the consequences of their own decisions.
When free markets are allowed to work by punishing failure and rewarding success, everyone benefits. The results are higher quality, lowered cost and innovative breakthroughs. But in a system of corporate welfare, those who suffer most are Americans who pay higher taxes funneled to well-connected companies.
A party of freedom is not a party of any one competitor, but a party of competition itself - what you might call the true “spirit of enterprise.”
Republicans will succeed again when we realize our true allegiance is not to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, but to free markets, free people and freedom itself.
• Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina heads the Senate Steering Committee, made up of the Senate’s most conservative Republicans, and is a member of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee.