Friday, June 6, 2008

Politics as unusual

The public’s interest in politics has been honed to a keen edge by the uncertainty over who’ll be sitting in the Oval Office next February. But the restaurant industry has been doing less handicapping than hedging. Indeed, the trade’s main lobbying forces have been quietly seeking insurance of sorts to protect the trade’s political interests regardless of who prevails in the November election.

That was evident during last month’s board meeting of the National Restaurant Association. As we reported at the time, the group voted to pursue an initiative whereby restaurateurs would be solicited to work in the campaigns of whichever candidate drew their support. The objective was to have a member of the business inside the tents of what were then the three main candidates. “When they win, we want friends who were friends [to them] before they won,” explained Bob Leonard, the IHOP franchisee who heads the NRA’s Political Action Committee.

That effort to curry favor with Democrats as well as Republicans has been seen in other actions by the group, large and small. For instance, as was noted earlier in this space, the association lined up John McCain to deliver a keynote address at its annual mega-convention in Chicago. I and apparently others chided the NRA for always selecting a speaker from the more sympathetic side of the aisle instead of taking a nonpartisan approach to booking presenters. In press releases issued after McCain appeared, the association noted that Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama had been invited to appear as well but had declined. It didn’t sound like the same NRA that had once boasted about its insider status with the Republican White House. It was as if it quietly removed that elephant pin from its lapel.

Fast forward to earlier this week, when the association and its longtime ally, the National Council of Chain Restaurants, formally praised a new law that aims to protect restaurants from being sued for printing credit card expiration dates on charge receipts. Obviously the two groups had pushed for the measure. They succeeded in part by working with Rep. Barney Frank, the liberal Democrat from Massachusetts, and Sen. Chuck Schumer, a party standard-bearer from New York. These are not the industry’s usual allies.

The NRA and its usual cohorts haven’t switched allegiances, to be sure. The group reportedly spent $200,000 last week alone to help one of its own, former chairman Ed Tinsley, win the Republican nomination for a U.S. House of Representatives seat from New Mexico. The association has very expressly indicated that it wants a member of the industry inside the Capitol, watching out for the business and presumably working closely with it to promote favorable measures. It’s hardly standing on the sidelines in that contest, and the party it favors is no secret, at least in that Congressional race.

But clearly its striving to work with the party that’s quite possibly going to control both the White House and the Capitol next year.

Every time restaurateurs are surveyed about what they regard as their biggest concerns, burdensome politics and regulation rank high on the list. If the industry slipped into a partisan mode in the current environment, that concern may move even higher.

Instead the NRA and the NCCR are taking a more pragmatic course. And it could prove a smart one indeed.

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