Republican National Committee Seeks Direction for GOP

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Reihan Salam
Journalist and Author
Wednesday, May 20, 2009; 2:00 PM

The Republican National Committee is meeting in Maryland this week, to discuss how the party should respond to the policies of President Obama, and to vote on several resolutions, including one to refer to the opposition as the "Democrat Socialist Party."

Reihan Salam, co-author of "Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream" was online Wednesday, May 20 at 2 p.m. ET to take your questions about the party's efforts to find a winning identity.

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Tampa, Fla.: I admire your efforts, but I just don't see how the Religious Right can compromise. They believe they do God's Will. One does not compromise with God. And they've said as much.

Further, the Club For Growth types refuse to compromise. Look at how they ran Sen. Specter out of the GOP. Since taxes and regulation destroy America, one cannot compromise with those who want to destroy us.

Have you seen any signs to the contrary? I haven't.

Reihan Salam: This is an excellent question, and I guess the answer is that it remains to be seen. The Religious Right is a far more diverse, fragmented group than it looks like from the outside. There are a lot of younger devout conservative evangelicals who are interested in moving to the economic center, and I think that's a good and hopeful sign. As for the Club for Growth, you have a stronger case -- but again, no one wants to be a faction in a minority party. That will have a disciplining effect.

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Willits, Calif.: Can an effort be made to maintain the civility and dignity that once characterized the Republican party and simply address the merits of conflicting issues without unseemly personal references and characterizations that demean the debate?

Reihan Salam: Well, I think that the bareknuckle politics you're referring to is something we've seen develop over a much longer time horizon. In the 1860s, lest we forget, senators were getting stabbed. In Taiwan's legislature, fistfights were, until recently, relatively common. Yes, it's not great, but it's been worse. So, to sum up: I don't think it's just Republicans who get personal. But of course that's no excuse for those who do run excessively harsh, personal campaigns. I happen to think that lots of Republicans, including many I disagree with, do a good job of focusing on issues.

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Topsail Beach, N.C.: Although neoconservatives won't admit it, isn't most of the decline of the Republican Party in 2006 and 2008 rooted in the misguided adventure in Iraq that had cost more than 4,000 dead American soldiers and $1 trillion in expenditure?

Reihan Salam: A very good point -- Iraq had a lot to do with the collapse of GOP support in 2006. But 2008 is a trickier story. The success of the post-2006 strategic shift -- the surge, the Anbar Awakening, the consolidation of Iraq's government -- decreased the salience of Iraq as a voting issue. Meanwhile, the economy increased in salience. And frankly, Republicans didn't look too hot on domestic issues, in part because, as you suggest, they had been so tightly focused on the war and national security (for totally defensible reasons). I'd go further and submit that the party's real troubles began in 1998, and arguably in 1988. We've seen the long working out of a difficult process, namely the framing of a post-Reagan conservatism in a dense, more culturally liberal country.

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Jacksonville, Fla.: Dear GOP

Please refrain from such things as "Democrat Socialist Party" because you are making our jobs just too damn easy.

Signed

The writers of "The Daily Show," "The Colbert Report" and every political comic in the country.

If the ideas get any dumber the party should pass a resolution requiring it be watered twice a week (but not between 10 and 4 during the summer.)

Reihan Salam: I agree with you on this one.

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Wilkes-Barre, Pa.: Re-naming or re-labeling is not the way to go. It's just what the Dems are doing, and, imitation being the sincerest form of flattery -- why do it? Stick firmly to the fundamental values and principles of the party. I don't think the average American knows what they are anymore, nor do they understand that the founding principles are what has always made this country great. Do not "respond" or "react" but rather challenge the Dems policies and programs using solid data and argument that shows the ramifications of these policies and programs further down the line.

Reihan Salam: Well, I think there's a bit of a contradiction here. I actually agree with you: re-naming or re-labeling isn't enough. Rather, I think some fundamental values and principles need to be considered in the light of a changing economy. For example, Republicans rightly advocate a low-tax economy. But does it make sense to spend, say, 22 percent of GDP and raise only 19 percent in taxes? That's just not sustainable. "So cut the budget!" Yes, but cut what? The truth is that steep entitlement cuts aren't very popular. We need to reform and reshape these programs so that they create less of an economic burden over time. That requires a lot of heavy lifting. Just talking about the tax side isn't going to get you there.

And as to your point about challenging the Democrats, that might be the best approach now, while we're in opposition. But as new crises emerge, we need to have an agenda at the ready. Keep in mind that crises lead politicians to reach for "off-the-shelf" solutions. The problem conservatives ran into during the TARP debacle is that there were so few pro-market, center-right solutions on-the-shelf. The right hadn't been thinking very deeply about financial markets and regulation.

My guess is that the next crisis will be an energy crisis, and though this is an issue that ought to skew Republican, I don't get the sense that we have enough in the way of on-the-shelf solutions, if that makes sense.

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Arlington, VA: So, Steele says that the Republicans will no longer be apologizing for their mistakes, nor taking it easy on Obama. When was the era when they actually did these things? I think I missed it.

Reihan Salam: I take your point, Arlington. Honestly, I don't think Steele will solve Republican problems. That will come from governors and the states. Obama's personal popularity is so high that conservatives need to think long-term.

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Montgomery Village, Md.: Does it seem that the Republican Party has assumed a "circular firing squad " position and has even placed other republicans in the middle of the circle? e.g. Steele, et al. How long before Steele is gone?

Reihan Salam: Wow, that is a tough question. I actually think replacing Steele would be a bad move -- it suggests panic, and the real issue is whether he has the right team in place to rebuild the party at level of infrastructure, etc., not whether he's the smoothest communicator. (Which he's not.)

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Indianapolis: Two words for the GOP to regain power...Jack Kemp. Reelected again and again in a working class area because he tried to address their concerns. What are the odds that the present GOP will move to his model?

Reihan Salam: Indianapolis, you are speaking my language. But I have one small caveat: the solutions ca. 1978 aren't, as we all know, the solutions ca. 2009. And that's my concern. To be true to Kemp's spirit, you don't parrot the policies he championed in the era of stagflation. You think about the problems the country is facing first and ideology second. Kemp was a rebel who break with what had been Republican orthodoxy. We could use a little more of that. We could also use more urban Republicans.

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Raleigh, N.C.: Good afternoon. Isn't the real problem that Bush's policies didn't work, and Republicans in Congress backed him pretty close to unanimously? You can try to rebrand the Edsel, but it's still the Edsel. You're better off designing a better car.

Reihan Salam: I'm going to give you a philosophical answer: I was a pretty harsh critic of the Bush White House. But I also think he faced an unusually difficult set of circumstances, which made it difficult for him to tackle a lot of long-term domestic policy challenges. When you talk to folks who had been in the Bush White House, you get the sense that they didn't get that Social Security reform would be a tough sell when defined benefit pension plans were collapsing -- they didn't instinctively understand the anxieties of voters, including Republican voters.

And I also think Bush got a few things right. The Medicare prescription drug benefit was far from perfect. It was a political reaction to some of the flaws of the 1988 effort to create catastrophic coverage under Medicare for the elderly. It did represent a smart, fresh way of thinking about conservative domestic policy.

To your point: yes, I think designing a new car is what we have to do. Defending the Bush domestic legacy isn't going to fly. But there is a lot that's worth holding on to, particularly the basic conviction that cheaper, more effective government is a good thing and that small government is about having a big, flourishing, rich society, not cutting for cutting's sake.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Do you think the public actually buys the idea that Democrats are Socialists? The Red scare worked in the 1950s but I fear only makes Republicans look laughable in the 21st century. How does this labeling boost the image of Republicans are people with alternative ideas?

Reihan Salam: I think you're right: it's silly. It's a form of venting. And you have to admit: everyone vents from time to time, including the best of us. Unfortunately for Republicans, venting won't help you win elections.

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Arlington, Va.: I'm a pro-choice Independent. I'll vote for whom I think would do the best job. I think the anti-abortionists could co-opt a lot of marginal pro-choicers if they started pushing for mandatory, age appropriate sex education (no abstinence only), which also provides for easy access to birth control. I had sex-ed in high school, and, to be honest, it scared me out of having sex until I was ready to go on birth control. But if they continue to scream no to abortion, no to sex education, and no to birth control, they've lost a lot of ground in the battle.

Reihan Salam: Well, I think Republicans would be wise to not alienate the folks you call "marginal pro-choicers" -- not sure they'd like that label! -- but I also think that the party will remain the party of pro-lifers. I do think there's room for compromise on issues like birth control and sex ed, etc. Most importantly, I think you need a more diverse party that allows candidates in different regions to match the views of their constituents, and that doesn't necessarily write them off for national office, provided they back the idea of local democracy.

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Minneapolis: Chris Cillizza has a post up now about Gov. Mitch Daniels, one of the few Republicans who remains popular these days. Cillizza quotes Gov Daniels as saying the party isn't interested in following Daniels's lead in trying to solve problems rather than demonize the opposition. Its almost as though the GOP has lost interest in governing. Or is there a leader waiting in the wings to seize control of the party?

washingtonpost.com: Mitch Daniels: Republican Revolutionary

Reihan Salam: I love Mitch Daniels. In November, I suggested that he'd be the perfect match for Obama:

http://www.forbes.com/2008/11/23/auto-bailout-obama-oped-cx_rs_1124salam.html

Am I optimistic that the GOP will find a strong candidate for 2012? Well, I think a lot of conservatives are in the grip of identity politics right now: they don't want to be kicked when they're done, they want to be told that they're on the right track. That means that they'll probably get a candidate who will tell them what they want to hear rather than someone who will appeal to the middle, and to voters who went for Obama in 2008. But I could be wrong! Things move fast in US politics.

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Boston: I agree with some of your assertions in your May 3 article. I also believe that the GOP needs to focus less on just saying no to President Obama, and presenting real ideas.

For the GOP, prove that smaller government can work. The public has a serious distrust for the private sector right now, and will probably not support more de-regulation (see the financial services sector), UNLESS you show that there will be oversight.

I agree that the GOP is not at all connecting with voters. Lower taxes are great, but that does nothing when you are un-insured, loosing school funding, on unemployment because there are fewer jobs.

washingtonpost.com: Specter's Exit Isn't the Problem

Reihan Salam: Yep, this is why governors and mayors are so important to the Republican future: prove that you can do the job, that you can address quality of life concerns, provide solid public management, etc.

Re: lower taxes: I'd add that the real issue is the lowest taxes over the long term. Unsustainable tax cuts just mean more debt -- and higher taxes in the future.

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Santa Fe, N.M.: I'm just wondering if many of the same things weren't being said about the Democratic Party in the wake of Ronald Reagan's victory in 1980, and it the Democrats weren't in just as much disarray.

I'm old enough that I should be able to remember it, but I wasn't paying attention to politics then in the same way I am now.

Reihan Salam: Oh yes, they sure were. But Democrats had an advantage even then: because liberals are 1/5 of the electorate, liberal Democrats always understood that they needed moderates. Because conservatives are 1/3 of the electorate, they don't understand in their gut that they need moderates too. So the Democrats cooked up the DLC and Republicans don't have a real equivalent.

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New York, N.Y.: Have you seen polling data of Millennial voters? If you label the Democrats as Socialists, these young voters may think that is a good thing. How is the Republican Party going to keep reaching out to a new generation of voters that strongly supports government intervention in keeping them safe after the trauma of 9/11 and in many other areas that concern them?

Reihan Salam: I sure have seen the polling data, and it's not very encouraging. I don't think Republicans should embrace government as a solution to all problems. But I think they need to stop pigeonholing themselves as a party that only talks about taxes and national security: you can't concede the entire landscape of domestic policy reform to the other party!

Re: government intervention: this is a generation that also expects a high quality of service and flexibility, which could work to the advantage of the right. Of course, Dems also understand this.

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Philadelphia: The Republican Party is one that says had John McCain picked Tom Ridge as his running mate that some right wing leaders would have walked out of the convention, and is one where Arlen Specter is no longer a Republican. What is the relevance of the Republican Party to us voters in Pennsylvania, who see it as the emerging party of Pat Toomey who, despite his strong ideology, has few chances of winning statewide?

Reihan Salam: The Republican party is bigger than Pat Toomey. The great tragedy for me is that Sam Katz was never elected mayor of Philadelphia as a Republican.

But more directly: Pennsylvania is an aging post-industrial state that is losing a lot of brainpower to other regions. Some of that has to do with a heavy tax/regulatory burden. Making government cheaper and more effective -- a la Mitch Daniels in Indiana -- could make a big difference. The question is, does Pennsylvania have a Republican like Mitch Daniels? I honestly don't know. But if she's out there, Republicans should be working double-time to get her to run for office.

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Anonymous: Who do you see rising above this mess to actually become the de facto party leader ? It looks like no one of sound mind wants to take on the challenge opting instead to hide their heads in the sand until the 2016 election. Is Sarah Palin the only one with the testicular fortitude to try ?

Reihan Salam: Wow. Let me answer this question with a question. In 1977, Ronald Reagan -- who just lost the GOP presidential nomination, barely, to Gerald Ford, who went on to lose -- was talking about nothing but the Panama Canal Zone Treaty, an issue that wasn't exactly foremost in the minds of voters.

I get the strong sense that Huckabee and Romney are serious about running. If the economy takes a turn for the worse, Romney could make a compelling case for taking a leading role in the party, and maybe even becoming the presidential nominee. I also think Mark Sanford is an interesting, impressive, honest guy who offers very strong medicine -- stronger perhaps than the general electorate would like. He does, however, speak to the small government right.

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Silver Spring: I think that one of the big things that doomed the Republican Party this last election was the perception that the economic mess was their fault due to deregulation and a pandering to Wall Street and big business at the expense of the rest of us. I think the party has to take the position that excessive regulation that stifles business is to be opposed, but the government does need to make sure, using regulations and law, to make sure that everyone plays fair and the playing field is a level as possible, and to swiftly punish those who think that all's fair and everyone is a sucker.

Reihan Salam: I agree. Pro-market implies -- or should imply -- pro-transparency, pro-competition, and pro-oversight.

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Centreville, Va.: My problem with the GOP is that their central message seems to be that we should hate and fear our own government. Why would I vote for someone to run the government who conveys this message? Is there anyone in the GOP who can speak positively about the necessity and effectiveness of government and its compatiblity with basic freedoms?

Reihan Salam: When Ronald Reagan said, "government is the problem, not the solution" he prefaced it by saying that "in the present crisis" this is true. Conservatives have long been state-builders -- the national highway infrastructure comes to mind. David Brooks often talks about the Hamiltonian strand in American politics: believers in a government strong enough to promote opportunity, but not so strong as to stymie individual initiative. That sounds right to me.

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Atlanta: I believe the Republicans present themselves in a way that allows people who discriminate to feel comfortable. Those folks are seldom quieted or acknowledged to my satisfaction. I believe if Republicans would make these folks feel less comfortable, others would focus Republican governing beliefs and may be even join.

(P.S. Please spare me any references to Strom Thurmond, Ted Kennedy or any other old timer. I'm too young to care about those things, really I am. I'm focusing on the last 20 years.)

In what ways do you disagree with my suggestion?

Reihan Salam: I guess I'm not sure exactly what you mean. Discrimination takes many different forms, and I think that people who discriminate cluster across the two major parties in complicated ways. Are you saying that Republicans welcome racists? I think that's wrong.

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Santa Cruz, Calif.: I guess my test for what the GOP needs to do is really simple: what would cause me to vote for them? Though a Democrat, I voted for Arnold because he seemed the more intelligent and bipartisan of the candidates. (And I'd vote for David Brooks for anything.) In other words, I don't want a party that would cause a wild swing of the pendulum in the other direction--I want one that seems thoughtful, that offers constructive ideas, votes with Obama on things that they agree on 80% of, and so on. The GOP seems to be going precisely in the opposite direction philosophically.

Reihan Salam: This was a big insight of David Cameron's Conservatives -- the end to "Punch-and-Judy politics," or opposition for its own sake.

Basically, we've seen a narrowing of the pendulum swings for a while. Reagan/Thatcher moved the center to the right. Clinton/Blair ratified the new consensus while inching slightly to the left. Compassionate conservatism was, in theory at least, a way to ratify the Clinton/Blair consensus.

What we don't know yet is: will Obama be a center-left Reagan who intends to move the pendulum sharply to the left? And if he is, how should conservatives react? By accepting the new consensus, or by balancing him by moving to the right.

My guess, over the long-term, is that the center will inch to the left, though perhaps less so than some of Obama's strongest supporters hope.

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Detroit, Mich: I am a conservative Republican who voted for President Obama, the first and only Dem I have only voted for. According to Dick Cheney and Rush Limbaugh, I should be banished from the party. This whole concept of the Big Tent is a complete and utter fallacy, if anything, the extreme right wing of my party is pushing out moderates, minorities and anyone who does not believe in the gospel. In my opinion, having a Republican who only votes with Republicans 75 to 80% of the time is better than a Democrat voting with us 0% of the time. When are party leaders going to move beyond rhetoric and slogans, and offer REAL solutions based on conservative principles to people and give them a reason why they should vote for us and not the other guys/gals?

Reihan Salam: I dodn't know, Detroit! I think they'll do it when their back is against the wall and they feel they absolutely have to.

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Washington, D.C.: Who would you rather have in your Republican party, Colin Powell or Rush Limbaugh?

Reihan Salam: Ah, you've backed me into a corner. I don't think I should have to choose. I actually wrote a column about this.

http://www.forbes.com/2009/03/01/rush-limbaugh-republicans-opinions-columnists_conservatives_obama.html

I don't want to bore you, but here's an excerpt:

What Limbaugh fails to understand is that any successful political movement is built of both true believers and evangelizers. True believers, like Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, fire up the troops. They tell their followers exactly what they want to hear, and they instinctively resist any compromise of their hallowed principles. As a general rule, true believers live and work and worship among other true believers, and they like it that way. To the extent they engage the other side, the engagement takes the form of friendly but chilly mutual incomprehension or, more often, a shouting match. There is something admirable about conviction that runs this deep. But it limits the size of your audience. Every week Rush Limbaugh reaches an audience of over 13 million listeners--a staggering sum by any standard. Yet 13 million listeners plus their spouses, plus the family dog, plus a few dead aunts and uncles thrown in here or there, still doesn't add up to an electoral majority.

That's where the evangelizers come in. Evangelizers are in the business of making converts, and so they are obligated to make their way among people who are opposed--sometimes bitterly opposed--to their views. To succeed, evangelizers need to recognize the other side's strengths and to use its language. Just as missionaries would occasionally "go native" in foreign lands and abandon their original creed, there is a real risk that evangelizers will lose touch with their core beliefs. Yet other missionaries learned to adapt, to take the essentials of their faith and compromise it in such a way as to make it relevant and compelling to the locals.

------

You need both!

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Brooklyn: Perhaps the approach the GOP should take is to stop referring to the "government" as though it's al Qaeda or the main stream media - groups that are considered acceptable to disparage.

People seem to forget that the government is made entirely of, yes, people. American citizens at that. We like them, right?

This weird government self-loathing seems incredibly at odds with the God Bless Americaness of the GOP.

How can you love the people and hate the government when they are one and the same? You can't. You gottta love em both.

Reihan Salam: Hey Brooklyn! I'm from Brooklyn too.

I don't hate the government. But here's the thing. People change when they're given power. Too much power can cause people to miss some of the subtleties and nuances of the world as it really is -- this affects powerful right-wingers and left-wingers. So I think small government types are really saying that they want power to be more evenly distributed across society.

Aha! You say. Big corporations have too much power, poor people have too little.

I agree with the latter, and government can do a lot to help the poor get ahead -- to develop the skills, acquire the tools they need to survive. But big corporations are locked in collusive, crooked relationships with government a lot of the time. Yes, we'd all like a benevolent, universally competent government. But that's not always what we get!

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Philadelphia: Had the Contract With America not come into play, I would likely have registered Republican, following in the footsteps of just about everyone in my family. But I wasn't old enough to register until a year after it came out, and by that point I was firmly a No Party person. Through the late 1990s my family gradually trickled over to Independents and Democrats, and by 2004 were quite ardent Democrats and Independents (I'm still No Party). We're all keen on non-intrusive government, but in the opposite sense of the Republican party's - we want the government out of the bedrooms of consenting adults and out of women's bodies, but do want it keeping an eye on businesses and infrastructure and, quite importantly, not torturing people and also not disregarding absolute, known threats to the country in favor of personal grudges (that is, no switches in priority from hunting down the man responsible for attacking the U.S. to going after a man who wasn't responsible).

My family is mostly white, mostly Protestant, mostly heterosexual; everyone alive over 21 is in college or a college grad on both sides, and no one was a military draftee during the 20th century - those who served in uniform during times the draft was used - most of the men, and several of the women - were volunteers. And many of us were told more than once in this decade that we're unAmerican for not blindly supporting certain statements or actions, and it's going to take a drastic leadership and policy change in the Republican party before most of us will even consider supporting it again, especially now that Specter's out.

Reihan Salam: This is a deep question -- I can't really do it justice. Let me just say that I think the GOP needs a new consensus: a new way of reconciling some of these divides. I call it Reihanism.

No, I'm kidding. That's a terrible name.

But seriously, I think you're speaking for a lot of American voters, and for what it's worth I do think that many Republicans are thinking about exactly how to win you and your family back. They're not doing a tremendous job at the moment, but these things move at a glacial pace.

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Reihan Salam: My friends! There are still some really excellent questions. If only I had paid more attention to the always-wise Mavis Beacon, who did her level best to teach me to type at the speed of sound.

This was a tremendously interesting conversation, at least for me, and I'd love to chat with you again. Feel free to email me at reihan.salam@gmail.com.

Also, if you're a glutton for punishment, you can read some of my scribblings.

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