The Republican Party’s biggest sugar daddies, the Koch brothers, are a mixed bag for the GOP: They bring money but lots of baggage. Their downside isn’t only that they are a convenient foil for Democratic turnout but also that they could exacerbate tensions within the Republican Party.
For years, the party has maintained an uneasy and unlikely alliance among big business, social conservatives and anti-government libertarians. If you looked at these three groups on a Venn diagram, you would often find little overlap except in years when they have a shared enemy: Barack Obama, for example. Enter the Koch brothers and their agenda, which is transparently self-interested.
In an effort to respond to Democratic donor Tom Steyer’s statement that he is different from the Kochs because he isn’t looking for a quo for his quid, a Koch spokesman disputed this characterization of selfishness, pointing out that the brothers have long opposed tax subsidies for oil and gas interests, an example where their mouths oppose their money. But, of course, the Kochs don’t spend money on campaigns designed to kill oil and gas drilling depreciation allowances. Instead, they are spending it to kill one of the most promising forms of alternative energy: solar. It is this anti-solar campaign that may awaken part of the Republican coalition and turn it against the brothers and their agents.
Solar panels throughout red states of the South and Southwest have become this century’s version of the satellite dish. In the late 1970s, rural and, later, suburban households who couldn’t get cable TV or were tired of paying its monopoly prices set up satellite dishes instead. This was about more than the thrill of getting television where it had been too fuzzy or expensive before: This was an act of freedom. You were beating a system that was rigged against you.
Today, another way to beat the system is to take on big utilities and their monopoly prices by putting some solar panels on your roof or in your yard. Your energy bills go down, and the utility company buys the extra power you generate. No wonder anti-establishment conservatives (and liberals, for that matter) love their solar panels. They are a deeply powerful and personal badge of defiance and independence.
Now the Koch brothers want to take it all away. They are funding a multistate campaign to kill solar panels by imposing a monthly fee on their usage. The argument is that solar-panel users are freeloading on the power grid. There may be some limited merit to that argument, but it is laughable coming from the Koch brothers and the large, carbon-based utilities. The grid has been a neglected stepchild of the energy business for generations. Now some freedom-lovers started a trend that could reduce the nation’s dependence on coal and oil, crown jewels in the Koch business empire.
Republicans are now fooling around with people who are only situationally for freedom – freedom when it’s good for their business. But the message for the young family trying to save money or the guy with 20 acres who is tired of getting jacked around or the small farmer barely getting by is clear: We will crush your dream.
This is not an association Republicans should covet.
The writer is a co-host of The Insiders blog, offering commentary from a Democratic perspective, and was the chief strategist for the Gore 2000 presidential campaign.