Business Democrats may be edging out of the closet

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Print this page by Bernie Niemeier

This magazine is nonpartisan, and so is its publisher.  Virginia Business delivers reports on business news and trends each month without spin and hits straight down the middle.  In politics that middle has become a bit hard to find, especially in the business community.

Lately, however, I’ve occasionally begun to hear something akin to inquisitive foot-tapping coming from the stall next door.  It seems that business folks who’ve leaned Democratic in their private lives may be getting more open about their differences with what has largely been a Republican-dominated business class.  Perhaps, the foot-tappers are realizing they have never entirely been alone.

Consider that a majority of Virginians voted to elect Democrat Barack Obama president, not just once but twice.  Surely, there must be some overlap between the general population and the business world.  The Republican elements of business have been, well, just a lot louder, almost scarily so.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s television ads during last November’s elections were a prime example. Though the U.S. Chamber claims the millions it spends on advertising are focused on issues and not candidates, 2012’s featured themes were exclusively drawn from the Republican presidential and Senate race platforms. Divisive partisanship coupled with negative positioning and scary background music didn’t do much to make the business community seem majority friendly (or minority friendly, for that matter).  It’s no wonder that some Democrats in business might be reluctant to identify themselves.  The resulting conversations are high in emotion and notably lacking in middle ground.

Take health-care reform. There are those in the business community who are happy to see health-care reform.  Health benefits expenses have risen unchecked for decades, becoming the fastest-growing expense for business budgets.  Employee health premiums have heavily subsidized care for indigent, unemployed and otherwise uninsured segments of the population.  Should it really be the role of Main Street to pay these social costs?  Maybe government should play that role.  Reform is much needed.

Then, of course, and especially in Virginia, there are infrastructure costs.  Businesses rely on a good transportation network, not just to move products to market, but also to move people to and from work.  The chronic underfunding of Virginia’s infrastructure is something that cannot be alleviated by the business community; this, too, is the role of government. Even public-private partnerships need public funding.  Otherwise, the only roads we’d have would be toll roads, with even higher tolls.

In the case of either health care or infrastructure, the argument most always comes down to cost.  In fact, the idea that a tax-starved government will find money to pay for necessary services by cutting other areas has proven unworkable.  No Congress, no legislature, no governor and no president — regardless of party — has been able to fund the long-term cost of essential services exclusively from existing revenues.

Even if the political will existed, there simply isn’t enough cash to be found.  While the idea of “no-new taxes” has populist appeal, especially for the well-heeled, it doesn’t add up to a workable long-term solution.  Much like at least half the voting public, there are some in the business community who must wonder, “Just who is Grover Norquist, and why is he so important?”  No-tax pledges have made underfunded, dysfunctional governance the norm.  Whatever happened to the time when we rightly expected our public figures to be exceptional?

Moving from fiscal to social issues, business leaders might also rightfully pause to search for middle ground.  After all, customers and employees alike are drawn from an increasingly diverse community.  Diversity is no longer limited to just race or gender.  Staking out political positions that affect any group negatively is risky business.

The failure of the Republican Party in last year’s elections has largely been linked to the perception that it is the party of big money, big business, guns and religion.  Moving toward a platform that will be inclusive of a larger percentage of the voting public without alienating existing constituents poses a significant challenge.

Looking forward, the key phrase may well be “percentage of the voting public.”  Despite legislation designed to either restrict voter turnout or reduce voter fraud, Virginia’s voter turnout was largely unchanged in 2012 from the presidential election of 2008.  Much has been made of lower turnout for gubernatorial elections, with many pundits opining that an entirely different electorate chooses the commonwealth’s governors.

Virginia’s voter turnout in last year’s presidential election was 76 percent, compared with just over 40 percent in the 2009 gubernatorial election.  Turnout in the 2009 race was much lower than normal.  Looking back over eight governor’s elections before 2009, the average turnout was 56 percent, with 61 percent being experienced only 20 years ago.  An entirely different electorate might not elect our next governor than those who voted for our current president.  In fact, only three of Virginia’s last eight governors have come from the Republican Party.

Of late, it may well be true that Democratic sentiments have been soft spoken in the business community.  However, it may not always be thus so. 

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