The Trumpification of our state politics is ahead of schedule.
Major statewide offices won’t open up until 2018, and Sen. Johnny Isakson has only token primary opposition before facing a Wall Street Democrat in the fall. But the just-ended legislative session showed the three-way schism among GOP leadership, rank-and-file members and the business community is already a gap of Make Georgia Great Again proportions. Like the political crisis — yes, that’s the word for it — that has engulfed the GOP nationally in recent months, there’s plenty of blame to go around. There will be no state-level correction until all parties accept their share of it.
The central issue here is not illegal immigration, but religious liberty. What began a couple of years ago as a renewed effort on an area of previously bipartisan agreement became an increasingly bitter fight between entrenched factions. Critics first branded the effort unnecessary, then counter-productive; before long, if you took the same position the Clintons did not so long ago, you were a “bigot.”
The bill’s backers, meanwhile, came to see their traditional business allies as enablers of their opposition — led by some pols only too happy to ride anti-establishment sentiment until they are the new establishment. Top elected officials were in a bind they did not want and from which they could see no way out.
Here, the analogy to Washington’s handling, or non-handling, of immigration falls apart. Unlike in Washington, D.C., Georgia’s proposal erred on the side of the grassroots at the potential expense of business — maybe a sign of how different things are in the age of Donald Trump than when the Gang of Eight produced its immigration bill just three years ago. But this time, the chambers of commerce didn’t have their backs. The rift between the party and its “establishment” supporters from industry was wide open.
There are starkly divergent accounts as to how Gold Dome leaders and the CEO set wound up so far apart on the final version of House Bill 757. The former claims the latter sang a different tune behind closed doors than once the bill emerged publicly; the latter vehemently denies that and says some of its red lines were ignored.
What’s clear is two-fold. First, there was a fatal lack of salesmanship for the bill. Had the final text not been revealed unexpectedly and passed by the House and Senate within hours, but rather explained in detail and sold to those executives with the power to mitigate concerns with the measure or to create pressure for a veto with their denunciations, the bill might have been seen as the defusing of a political bomb. Not by all parties, of course, but by enough that we wouldn’t be talking about boycotts.
Second, the split may have been foreordained when the Metro Atlanta Chamber set out its two pre-session priorities: more money for transit, and no RFRA, as the most common of religious-liberty bills is known. There could have been no clearer signal to the two-thirds of GOP legislators who live outside the 10-county metro region: We aren’t one of y’all. Trust between the two never recovered.
In the session’s dying hours came the response from lawmakers who felt jilted: A pair of study committees to reconsider their preferential treatment of they’ve given industry over the years. Then, the real coup de grace: a bid to make corporations’ PR-friendly non-discrimination policies subject to class-action lawsuits if they aren’t upheld. It was a two-bladed dagger. Companies would either risk devastating lawsuits (not exactly a traditional GOP principle) or they’d have to betray their LGBT allies by dropping such policies. It was eventually withdrawn, but not before sending a chill throughout the Capitol.
In the climate of 2016, it had the patina of a certain Republican front-runner who last month said a wealthy family giving to his opponents “better be careful, they have a lot to hide” and just this past week threatened to “spill the beans” about his chief rival’s wife. It was unmistakably Trumpian.
And so we head into a primary season less likely to change the bent of Republicanism in Georgia than to solidify it. The GOP soul-searching desperately needed nationally will have to happen here, too.