CATHERINE RAMPELL COLUMN
Advance for release Friday, April 9, 2021, and thereafter
(For Rampell clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)
WASHINGTON - Republicans learned a valuable lesson this past week: There's more to capitalism than tax cuts.
Turns out successful capitalists also need to keep their customers happy.
For a long time, the Republican Party had what it believed was a tacit deal with corporate America. Companies donated enormous sums to GOP campaigns and aligned groups, and in exchange, Republicans delivered tax cuts: on corporate profits, capital gains, estates. Whatever other agenda items Republicans pursued - on immigration, civil rights or anything else - corporate America would generally keep its mouth shut. So long as the tax cuts kept flowing, the only "speech" that corporations engaged in came from their wallets, which in turn were fattened by those tax cuts.
An un-virtuous cycle, if you will.
But recently, something funny happened. Democrats, having achieved unified control of government, are threatening to reverse the major corporate tax cut Republicans passed in 2017. Yet corporate America is criticizing Republicans, and for something unrelated: legislation in Georgia, Texas and other states that threatens to strip Americans of their voting rights.
Republicans are furious that corporations appear so ungrateful.
"I found it completely discouraging to find a bunch of corporate CEOs getting in the middle of politics," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., whined Monday. He fumed on Tuesday that his "warning, if you will, to corporate America is to stay out of politics." Then he hastened to add: "I'm not talking about political contributions."
McConnell wasn't the only politico suggesting that companies should butt out of politics (except when it comes to contributions, of course) if they wanted to continue reaping fiscal benefits. Georgia legislators were more explicit about what corporations need to do to keep the tax-cut gravy train rolling.
Last week, the Georgia House of Representatives voted to revoke a break on fuel taxes that benefits Atlanta-based Delta Airlines, which had criticized the state's recent voting law. House Speaker David Ralston, R, explained: "You don't feed a dog that bites your hand. You gotta keep that in mind sometimes." Apparently - shockingly! - this tax break had not been based on some abstract notion of public welfare or good governance or economy-boosting policy but, rather, a perceived quid pro quo. (Georgia's Senate adjourned before taking up the legislation.)
There are a couple of takeaways here.
One is that what had recently been an extremely anodyne stance for companies to embrace - that voting is good - is now, somehow, construed as worthy of political retaliation. This says more about how far out on a limb Republicans are, not corporations. Despite spin that they are promoting "election integrity," GOP legislators in dozens of states have introduced bills that include potent weapons for disenfranchising voters.
Georgia's law, for instance, allows political appointees to seize control of election planning and ballot counting from local officials whenever those political appointees see fit. Had this law been in place last year, it might have enabled the GOP to overturn the results of the presidential election, and to find those "11,780 votes" Donald Trump was seeking. Even Georgia's Republican lieutenant governor, Geoff Duncan, acknowledged the provision was "the fallout from the 10 weeks of misinformation that flew in from former president Donald Trump," rather than any attempt at genuinely improving election functioning.
Second, for the most part, these corporations aren't criticizing anti-voter bills out of the goodness of their hearts. They're doing so because speaking up is good for the bottom line. They've crunched the numbers and determined that promoting voting rights is more financially valuable than whatever they stand to gain from slightly lower tax rates.
Among those at risk of disenfranchisement, after all, are these companies' customers and employees. And it's not such a great business move to endorse attempts to take away your customers' and employees' civil rights; even staying neutral on the issue - as some companies tried to do before the Georgia law passed - can alienate consumers who are either direct victims of the law or allies of those victims. Similar dynamics emerged after Republicans pursued other divisive laws in recent years (such as North Carolina's "bathroom bill").
This is, in fact, how capitalism works: Customers get to ditch you if they're unhappy with your brand. Republican officials are now trying to show just how valuable their own side's purchasing power is by urging supporters to boycott companies that criticize voting restrictions. They've struggled so far; shortly after Trump asked followers to boycott Coca-Cola products, for instance, an adviser tweeted a photo showing Trump with what appeared to be a Diet Coke on his desk.
Hard to blame Republicans too much for having difficulty with the concept of voting with your feet, though. As their approach in Georgia shows, they're accustomed to getting to pick and choose which votes count.
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Catherine Rampell's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter, @crampell.