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Analysis

Hart: Tea Party is anything but business' cup of tea

Once again, Arizona isn't getting the recognition it deserves.

At the national level, the country seems to have averted an economic cataclysm – for now. Politicians and pundits are busy dissecting the course of the drama that cost the U.S. economy an estimated $24 billion, and only ended with the Republican Party's acceptance of a deal with President Obama. But to truly understand the Republican Party's last-minute conversion to, um, moderation, one need only look to Arizona.

The year was 2010. Our state vaulted into global fame by passing the Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act, better known as SB 1070. Considered at the time the nation's most extreme anti-illegal immigration law, it – among other things – authorized local police to question anyone they suspected of being in the country illegally, and made it a state crime to lack immigration documents. In all, SB 1070 was openly aimed at making life so miserable for Arizona's undocumented immigrants that they would "self-deport."

Like today's Tea Party members, avid supporters of SB 1070 tended to be White, older and furious at what they saw as a federal government fond of taxing and regulating its citizens but indifferent to their most vital needs. In this case, that meant protection against an invasion from the south that threatened to undermine their cultural values and socio-economic status. It was an emergency. The federal government was doing nothing. Extreme measures were necessary.

Indeed, SB 1070 was only the latest in a multi-year series of Arizona anti-immigration measures.

Clearly, the anti-immigration forces were on a roll. In 2011, the movement's most visible leader, State Sen. Russell Pearce, was poised to keep the momentum going by passing another handful of further restrictive laws. Then a funny thing happened: Pearce – though a nationally known figure and president of the Arizona Senate – failed to get the needed votes among Senate Republicans. The bills failed.

Though it wasn't clear then, this slowed down Arizona's official anti-immigration juggernaut – even though the U.S. Supreme Court later upheld one part of SB 1070 – and doomed Pearce's political career. So what happened? Did the anti-immigrant forces have a change of heart? Did they suddenly embrace moderation? Did they lose interest in the issue?

Not exactly. What happened was Arizona's business community stepped in and said, basically, "Enough." Worried that the state's extremist image was driving away tourists, conventions and other revenue sources – as well as low-wage workers – several dozen corporate leaders and chambers of commerce wrote an open letter to the Legislature suggesting that lawmakers drop this new cluster of anti-immigration bills. And they did. End of story.

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Back to present-day Washington, D.C., where an Oct. 17 Washington Post headline said it all: "Business groups stand by [Republican House Speaker John] Boehner, plot against tea party." The story noted that many of the nation's most prominent business leaders and associations not only supported Boehner's willingness to defuse the national crisis – thus defying the Tea Party caucus – but also plan to back some candidates against Tea Party incumbents.

"I don't know of anybody in the business community who takes the side of the Taliban minority," a prominent lobbyist told the Post. The story also explained "the puzzling calm among the country's most powerful business and Wall Street lobbyists" during the crisis. The Tea Party may have a lot of noisy followers and seemingly unlimited access to media coverage, but when it comes to raw political power – whatever the ideology at stake – it's best to bet on the bottom line.

It's not a matter of morality, of sympathy for the downtrodden, of political passion or of safeguarding bedrock American principles. Instead, Tea Party members who claim to revere classic American values should remember that, as Calvin Coolidge put it: "The chief business of the American people is business."

Morrison Institute for Public Policy is a leader in examining critical Arizona and regional issues, and is a catalyst for public dialogue. An Arizona State University resource, Morrison Institute uses nonpartisan research and communication outreach to help improve the state's quality of life.

Bill Hart is a senior policy analyst at Morrison Institute for Public Policy.

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