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Man and His Self-Interest

A Commentary By Froma Harrop

Friday, May 01, 2009

In a Q&A last year with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, former Pennsylvania Rep. Pat Toomey was asked what book he wanted Barack Obama to read. The Republican quickly recommended the work of Adam Smith, the 18th century economist and philosopher who held that individuals promote the good of society when they pursue their self-interest.

Pat Toomey, you first.

Toomey is the man who launched a challenge-from-the-right against Sen. Arlen Specter in the 2010 Republican primary -- but now has the race all to himself. Specter would have probably lost that primary, since many of the Republican moderates who formed his support have left the party. Thus, he has declared himself a Democrat, a convenient label for the general election.

Specter is not unacquainted with self-interest. He's pretty strong on self-regard, as well.

But when Specter's jockeying for advantageous position threatened Toomey's happiness, Republican right-wingers predictably portrayed the senator's self-interest as selfishness. Betrayal is another word that comes up.

Many Republicans have been shaky on the concept of self-interest. One recalls the big to-do over Rush Limbaugh's usefulness to the party. Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele got into hot water for calling the conservative talk-meister's rhetoric "incendiary" and "ugly."

Limbaugh has a dedicated fan club in the Republican base, and Steele was forced to apologize. "There was no attempt on my part to diminish his voice or leadership," he said.

Actually, that was his intention, and it was a smart one besides. In his controversial remarks, Steele recognized that Limbaugh's bread-and-butter comes not from helping Republicans but from gathering a massive audience for which he is royally paid.

"Rush Limbaugh is an entertainer," Steele had said. "Rush Limbaugh's whole thing is entertainment." To wit, it is in Limbaugh's interest to say colorful things that turn off most of the electorate but that turn on his listeners.

Some of the cooler Republican minds are rightly blaming conservative hotheads for driving moderates like Specter out of the party. Topping their list is The Club for Growth, an anti-tax group that Toomey once led.

The Club's signature contribution to American politics is its RINO designation. RINO stands for Republican in Name Only. The Club stamps "RINO" on the forehead of any Republican who opposes tax cuts for any reason.

Back in 2003, the Club ran ads against two Republican senators skeptical of the Bush tax cuts -- Ohio's George Voinovich and Olympia Snowe of Maine. Next to a picture of each senator waved a French flag, then a symbol of capitulation in the march to war in Iraq.

That ad got a lot of laughs up in Maine, which has the second-largest percentage of French-Americans (after New Hampshire). The folks up in Presque Isle were probably looking at the tricolor and thinking, "Isn't that nice."

But seriously hurting the popular Snowe was not the Club's expectation or motivation in running the ads. It was to draw attention to itself, get its leaders onto cable TV and drum up some contributions. The Club for Growth's overriding self-interest is the Club for Growth, not the Republican Party.

Specter was the kind of Republican who could win in a state like Pennsylvania. He voted with the Republican Party only 65 percent of the time for the same reason that Sen. Ben Nelson, a Democrat representing conservative Nebraska, voted 64 percent of the time with his party. But outside the left-wing steam rooms, you don't hear Democrats wishing Ben Nelson ill.

To misquote Adam Smith, "It is not from the benevolence of Arlen Specter that Republicans could have expected to maintain power in the Senate, but from Specter's regard to his own self-interest." Beware stepping on a man's self-interest.

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