Morris: A Hesitant Chamber’s ‘Neutrality’
by Leo Morris
It has been several weeks now, and I still can’t fathom the Indiana Chamber of Commerce’s decision to endorse Democratic incumbent Joe Donnelly in the U.S. Senate race.
The Chamber has always endorsed the Republican in Senate races, and all the candidates it is endorsing in this year’s U.S. House races are Republicans, so the Donnelly pick goes against everything in the group’s history. In the absence of a reasonable explanation from Chamber leaders, we are left to speculate about their motivation.
I have my own ideas, which I’m happy to share.
But first, just a word or two about endorsements.
They don’t mean much, they really don’t. Outside of an organization’s own members, most people don’t care diddly about which candidates civic group A or professional group B likes for public office. Endorsements are mostly a clique’s self-congratulatory way of enhancing its public profile.
Even newspaper endorsements, theoretically meant to sway large swaths of the public, are largely worthless, which it pains me to say since I produced them for more than 30 years. The small percentage of readers who follow the editorial page either have already made up their minds or aren’t going to be convinced by a few hundred words among the thousands they have already considered.
So the net result of a newspaper endorsement is that at least half the readers are ticked off by it, with no offsetting positive benefit.
For that reason, some newspapers have skipped the whole endorsement ordeal. I haven’t done any research, but I suspect their number is growing in these desperate days of rapidly declining circulations. It’s probably a smart business decision, so I can’t really argue against it too strongly.
I still believe in the practice, however, no matter how futile it might be. The primary function of an editorial page is to take a stand on matters of public interest. If it stays on the sidelines for elections, the public’s best opportunity to participate in the democratic process, what good is it?
But there is one cardinal rule for those – whether newspaper, special interest group or some other collective – who do decide to endorse: Never flinch. Whenever a race is skipped, it sends a signal of confusion, duplicity or downright dumbness. It will, to paraphrase a sentiment from another context, dishearten your friends and amuse your enemies.
Which brings me back to the Indiana Chamber of Commerce: It flinched.
I’m sure some of you are all but screaming at me about now: The Chamber chose to stay neutral in the Senate race. It did not, did not, did not endorse Donnelly.
Ah, but it did.
If you have always endorsed one side in political contests then sit out one particular race, it is the same as endorsing the other side in that race. Just listen to the satisfied reaction of Donnelly and his supporters – they understand this very well. And consider the utter silence from Republican Mike Braun and his supporters – they understand it, too.
So do Chamber members, unless they truly are suffering from an attack of downright dumbness.
Why the departure from past practice? All Chamber representatives will say is that there is “good alignment” with both candidates on some issues but also “notable areas of disagreement” with each candidate. How weaselly. Such is almost always the case, so you choose the candidate closest to your goals and roll the dice.
As I said, I have my own ideas about this.
Braun has closely allied himself with President Donald Trump. The Chamber is part of the GOP establishment, and the GOP establishment detests Trump. But the Chamber is afraid to say such a thing out loud, so it retreats into supposed neutrality.
(The mutual Trump-establishment hatred is but one of the forces roiling the GOP, which is trying mightily to keep pace with the disintegration of the Democratic Party, being pulled apart by the socialist lunatic fringe. The coming crackup of America’s two major parties and what might happen in the aftermath is the major under-reported story of our time, but that’s another column or two or three.)
And why would the Chamber hate Trump? Hasn’t he been tossing aside business-strangling regulations at a breathtaking pace, resulting in the most robust economy in decades? And doesn’t the Chamber’s mission statement promise to “cultivate a world-class environment which provides economic opportunity and prosperity for the people of Indiana and their enterprises”?
But perhaps you’ve heard the story of the pushcart operator who grew his enterprise into a department store then immediately went to the city’s political leaders to demand strict regulation of all those public-endangering pushcart operators. Could it be that among all those regulations Trump is discarding are regulations that give an advantage to the chamber’s clients in their struggles against upstart competitors?
That’s just me speculating, of course. I could be completely off base, totally unfair, horrendously misinterpreting the evidence.
But can I really be faulted? When there is a void to fill, the void will be filled.
Just ask any gunfighter. If you flinch, the other guy gets to draw first.
Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is this year’s winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.