July 31, 2014 SIGN IN | REGISTER

Tea Party Excess Threatens High-Tech Success | Commentary

The government shutdown and threatened financial default may seem so yesterday, given the Obamacare rollout mess. But the tea party’s October call to conservative arms is having a persisting, pernicious effect, even though the media and Wall Street seem to have moved on.

What I have in mind, particularly, is the sequester’s impact on science, the generator of America’s future economic growth.

In the Senate, where a modicum of bipartisanship and sanity still remain, Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., has assumed the mantle of GOP leadership on innovation. His recent gutsy call for increased federal investments in research comes as his former South Carolina colleague, Jim DeMint, has been pressuring Republicans from his perch atop The Heritage Foundation to focus on taming the federal deficit to the exclusion of almost everything else.

The Heritage drumbeat has considerable traction in the House, where DeMint’s acolytes are inhibiting even the smallest attempts by Republican authorizers on the Science, Space and Technology Committee to address America’s flagging research enterprise.

Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, should take a cue from the other Lamar and challenge the tea party to do battle over federal science spending. He might lose the initial skirmish, but he will come out the ultimate victor because the past is on his side.

Democrats believe they won a political victory by hanging tough and refusing to allow Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and his minions to gut the Affordable Care Act. And snapshots of public sentiment at the time put most of the blame for the government shutdown and the near-death experience of financial default squarely on Republicans.

But in the end, what Democrats really got was a three-month ceasefire in the battle between believers in government and scoffers who, apart from defending defense programs, see shrinking the federal enterprise as their principal Washington assignment. The deal leaves in place all the uncertainties that harm enterprises requiring certainty — innovation is one of them.

Apple’s outlook provides a good illustration of the looming danger. Ever since the death of Steve Jobs, the visionary founder of the Cupertino, Calif.-based company, Apple stock has been on a roller-coaster ride. From the day Tim Cook donned the mantle of CEO, analysts have been wondering if Apple’s gift of gold would soon follow Jobs into the grave. But in the long term, Washington, not just California, will hold the keys to Apple’s success.

The public may not know it, and Wall Street may not fully grasp it, but Jobs did not invent the technologies Apple uses today. Jobs’ genius was his uncanny ability to sense what devices the public would snap up and identify the existing technologies that would make the devices possible.

Even if Cook has the mustard to keep Apple’s innovation dynamo humming at the warp-speed standard Jobs set, he won’t be able to keep Apple dollars rolling in five or more years from now if the well of scientific discovery dries up. And that brings me back to the tea party fanatics and the damage their misguided cause is causing.

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