Exclusive — Cruz, Rubio ramp up criticisms of big business

It’s a strange time for the relationship between Republicans and big business.

Important figures in a party that usually toes the pro-business line are instead throwing jabs at the corporate world. The critics include several potential 2024 presidential contenders.

Their barbs will not be well-received in boardrooms or the Chamber of Commerce. Democrats will roll their eyes and allege opportunism. But an anti-elite GOP base that grew even more populist during former President Trump’s time in the White House could reward the pugnacious tone.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), in a phone interview for this column, ramped up his rhetoric, lambasting major corporations for what he sees as a leftward drift in executive suites.

“If you look at the CEOs of the Fortune 100, there are very, very few who you could even plausibly characterize as right of center,” Cruz told The Hill. “They are almost uniformly Democrat. And they have made the decision to enlist their companies in the political agenda of today’s Democratic Party, which is controlled right now by the radical left.”

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) — who, like Cruz, ran for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination — said in an email: “For the past several years, I have been making the case that far too many American companies were prioritizing short-term financial windfalls at the expense of America’s families, communities and national security. More and more people are coming around to that viewpoint, both in the Republican Party and around the country.”

Rubio had previously argued, in an April 25 New York Post op-ed, that it was time for a “rebuilding — and rebalancing” of the relationship between corporations and the national interest. 

The comments underline how Republicans, and conservatives generally, are grappling with unusual dynamics eddying back and forth between the white working-class element of their support and wealthy, corporate America. 

For a start, the dominant figure in the GOP is still a billionaire former president who has portrayed himself as a champion of working Americans since he launched his first campaign from his Manhattan skyscraper.

Meanwhile, much of the electorate is deeply distrustful of elites across the board. The pandemic’s financial effects, as well as longer-term problems of economic insecurity and wage stagnation, afflict GOP voters as much as their Democratic counterparts. And corporations increasingly weigh in on fractious social issues as well.

Cruz’s comments to The Hill were building upon a critique he had laid out in a prior Wall Street Journal op-ed.

Condemning the corporate reaction to the voting law recently passed in Georgia, Cruz wrote that he would no longer take donations from any corporate political action committee.

Liberals argue the Georgia law is de facto voter suppression. Conservatives vehemently disagree — and bridle about the fierce corporate backlash, which they see as symptomatic of a larger problem. To their eyes, corporate America is submitting to the same liberal mores that they believe dominate popular culture, Hollywood and much of the media.

“I will commend the left. They play this game deadly seriously,” Cruz said. “About a decade ago they realized there is enormous power in big business — and that if they could weaponize corporate America, it would be a powerful tool for enforcing their agenda. And we are seeing that more and more and more.”

The Texas senator told The Hill that there were no caveats to his declining corporate PAC donations. 

“I don’t intend to take even a single penny from them,” he said. Asked whether he hoped his party colleagues would follow suit, he replied, “I did in the op-ed. I encouraged other Republicans to do the same.”

Rubio, asked by reporters at the Capitol if he would follow Cruz’s lead on corporate PAC money, declined. “If they want to support us, that’s great. I don’t think anyone’s contribution guarantees I’m supportive of them,” he said.

Still, the chorus of criticism of business is growing.

In addition to the charges from Cruz and Rubio, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) is pushing legislation that he says would “break up the big tech companies” and impose “tough new penalties” on companies that violate antitrust laws.

There are at least three tectonic plates moving beneath the surface of the GOP’s internal debate.

One is the nature of the changes wrought by Trump; a second is the nation’s ongoing culture war; and a third is the possibility of a significant political realignment.

Trump’s populism encompassed protectionism on trade, Twitter attacks on corporate figures who displeased him and an often-expressed view that working Americans had been screwed over by rich elites.

Cruz, in the phone interview, contended that Democrats exhibit a “wealthy, arrogant condescension to working men and women [that] is palpable. And in many ways, Donald Trump’s election was the direct outgrowth of working men and women saying, ‘Enough is enough.’ Even Trump’s at-times overheated rhetoric is a direct manifestation of just how fed up so many Americans are with Washington trying to destroy their livelihoods.”

As for the culture war, issues like “wokeness” and “cancel culture” are becoming today’s equivalents of “political correctness” and “family values” — words whose very meaning is debated but that also serve as signposts to deeper fault-lines in American society.

Seeking to explain why there is intensifying friction between conservatives and big business, Rubio said: “Part of that is because these corporations, their CEOs and their boards seem eager to weigh in on behalf of every woke, left-wing social priority.”

The Florida senator added, “The other part is that people understand that many of these companies are more interested in gaining access to China’s consumers than being part of thriving American communities.” 

Beyond all that, the GOP could reap rich electoral dividends if it were to boost its working-class support, especially if it could do so across racial and ethnic lines.

On election night last year, Hawley tweeted: “We are a working-class party now. That’s the future.”

Rubio soon afterward told Axios: “The future of the party is based on a multiethnic, multiracial working-class coalition.”

Cruz in Friday’s interview contended that “the future of the Republican Party is fighting for the working man and woman.”

Acknowledging that the “rising populist movement” on the right was “a more recent phenomenon,” Cruz added: “I think the most important political change of the last decade has been a socioeconomic inversion. Historically the caricature, at least, was that Republicans were the party of the rich and Democrats were the party of the poor. I believe that is precisely opposite to where we are today. Democrats today are the party of rich coastal elites and Republicans are the party of blue-collar workers.”

Democrats are scornful of such notions. 

They accuse Republicans of simply putting a populist sheen on corporatist policies — and opposing moves that would improve the lives of working Americans.

When President Biden and the Democrats passed their COVID-19 relief bill in March — a measure that included $1,400 checks for millions of Americans — they got zero Republican votes.

Even the purported GOP populists such as Cruz, Rubio and Hawley supported Trump’s 2017 tax cuts, which benefitted corporations and the wealthy — though Rubio expressed misgivings about the legislation’s drastic reduction of the corporate tax rate. Cruz and Rubio have opposed minimum wage increases, though Hawley in February pushed to mandate a $15 an hour figure for companies with annual revenues of $1 billion or more.

Joe Trippi, a Democratic strategist who served as campaign manager for Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign, snorted derisively when asked about the supposed populist shift in the GOP.

“Wait a minute — do they still support all those tax cuts?” Trippi said. “They opposed the $1,400 checks for relief for people. They voted for big corporate tax cuts. And they don’t like Biden raising taxes on people who earn over a million dollars. Good luck with that!”

Exit polls from recent elections suggest there may be some shifting around of demographic trends concerning income, education and social class. But a true sea change may still be a distance away.

Trump, in both 2020 and 2016, did a bit better with voters earning less than $50,000 per year than his two Republican predecessors had done. 

In 2020, Trump won 44 percent of that lower-income demographic, whereas Mitt Romney and the late John McCain had each scored just 38 percent in 2012 and 2008 respectively.

Trump did significantly better with noncollege graduates than with college graduates in both his presidential contests. In November, Trump prevailed by 2 points among noncollege graduates but lost college graduates to Biden by 12 points.

There are clearly opportunities — and dangers — for Republicans in those figures. 

But Grant Reeher, a professor of political science at Syracuse University, said the kind of epochal shifts seen in the 1930s, when President Franklin Roosevelt enacted the New Deal, or in the 1960s, when President Lyndon Johnson pushed for The Great Society, were not apparent yet.

“Political scientists and pundits have been looking for a fundamental realignment now for 50 years. I don’t know what the Mark Twain phrase would be — rumors of a realignment can be greatly exaggerated?” Reeher said.

Despite the common narrative that Democrats had been abandoned by the working class, “the data doesn’t actually support that,” Reeher asserted. “Trump is able to peel off some of those people by redirecting the anger and frustration they feel. But that is different from saying he has realigned the parties. You are looking at significant but marginal changes.”

The political stakes in all of this are huge. And Republicans may be trying to thread too fine a needle in their efforts to be both champions of free enterprise and critics of corporate overreach.

But the rhetoric keeps heating up, inflamed by culture war moments like the recent decision of Major League Baseball to move the All-Star Game out of Atlanta in protest of the Georgia voting law.

Those kinds of moves. according to Cruz, “put a lot of Americans in a frustrating place. Look, I don’t want to boycott baseball. I like watching the Astros. So I am just pissed off that giant companies that should be focused on providing goods or services … are instead playing politics.”

“Woke politics trumps doing their jobs,” Cruz added.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage. 

Tags Donald Trump Joe Biden John McCain Josh Hawley Marco Rubio Mitt Romney Ted Cruz

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