Surviving Obama

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Reihan Salam
New America Foundation Fellow
Wednesday, October 7, 2009; 12:00 PM

Where should the Republican party go next? Every Wednesday, Reihan Salam examines the ideological struggle for the future of American conservatism and how to revitalize the Republican party.

A transcript follows.

Reihan Salam is a fellow at the New America Foundation, a contributing editor at National Affairs, and a columnist for Forbes.com and The Daily Beast. He writes The Agenda blog for National Review and is the co-author of Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream (Doubleday, 2008).

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Reihan Salam: Hello! This is the first of what I will hope will be a series of conversations about the future of the Republican party and the conservative movement. Let's dive in!

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Atlanta: Reihan-

Supposing that the Republicans take back 10-20 seats in the House, and say a couple seats in the Senate -- do you think this would make them more or less likely to present a serious reformist agenda, with market-driven proposals for dealing with health care (maybe HSAs, reinsurance, and some removal of the employer tax credit) and global warming (carbon tax)?

Reihan Salam: This is an excellent question, but the honest answer is that I'm not sure. The primary electorate in 2010 will be very different from the electorate in a presidential year: smaller, whiter, and older. And there's a real possibility that Republican reformers like Bob Inglis, who've backed proposals like those you've described, might face serious primary challenges. The best way to understand the behavior of Republicans -- and Democrats -- in Congress is to keep in mind that they're interested in getting reelected. As you know, 10-20 seats wouldn't represent huge gains. Alan Abramowitz has suggested that two dozen seats are realistic. So perhaps a *modest* comeback like the one you describe would encourage new tactics.

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Dallas: Mr. Salam, Perhaps the GOP would have credibility if they took on corporations like Halliburton, KBR and off shore tax evader Newscorp instead of voiceless targets like illegals...

Reihan Salam: Well, there's a lot of honest disagreement about this set of issues. I actually agree that Republicans should be seen as pro-competition and pro-consumer and pro-market rather than pro-business. Taking on corporate malfeasance is worthwhile -- but there's also a danger of using big business as a scapegoat for deeper structural problems, including the problem of regulatory capture.

As for immigration, I think you'll find that American voters across the political spectrum are concerned about the influx of undocumented workers. There are better and worse ways to talk about the issue, but it is pretty consequential and my sense is that it's inevitable that it'll be a topic of fierce disagreement in national politics.

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Berryville, Va.: With unemployment rate at the highest rate in 25 years why is no one suggesting a reduction in legal immigration?

Reihan Salam: I'll answer your question with another question: pro-immigration advocates want President Obama to pass a comprehensive immigration bill like the one that didn't get very far in Bush's second term, but we aren't hearing much about it. Why is that? Probably for the reason you mention -- lots of Democratic voters are unenthusiastic about an amnesty and an increase in the number of legal immigrants. Yet Latino voters turned out in large numbers for Obama, and Latino advocates claim -- there's debate over this -- that Obama's pro-immigration stance had a lot to do with this.

I wouldn't be surprised if we started to hear more about the immigration issue in the near future, particularly if the White House feels pressure to pass a comprehensive bill. The IRCA, the last big immigration reform, was introduced in the middle of a recession and only passed three years later.

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Long Island, NY: Mr. Salam

I'm not sure you chose the title of the discussion today, but I think that it's indicative of the problem the GOP may be facing.

Is the title meant to ask what the GOP needs to do to survive the Obama admin or is it the country in general?

Right now, the GOP needs to show that it stands for something specific - it needs a new "contract" that specifically spells out what it is for rather than what it is against (e.g. any change).

From some, you'd think that the only thing that will save the country from its dissolution will be the utter failure of the president's every decision. That may be good enough for 25% of the country but I don't see how that's a path that will gain support from a solid majority of Americans.

Reihan Salam: That's a very good question. I think of it as what the GOP needs to do to survive and flourish.

As for the idea of a new "Contract with America," I'm not sure that's exactly the right approach. Many have argued that the Contract was less effective than observers came to believe at the time. And any national party needs room for disagreement and diversity.

But I do think that Republicans need a new approach to domestic policy.

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Boston: It seems the GOP has effectively given up on the Northeast, and Westcoast. They also appear to be losing Latinos. Given the socially conservative nature of the GOP, how do they win these people back, and keep them.

Reihan Salam: There are a number of surprisingly strong GOP candidates in the Northeast in this cycle, and as Democrats from the Mid-Atlantic and New England migrate to the South it is possible that the areas they leave behind will become more susceptible to Republicans, particularly if the GOP alters its message to fit those regions.

With regard to social conservatism, I think a new Pew survey on abortion can serve as a useful guide: the public might actually be moving slightly to the right on abortion while moving strongly to the left on gay rights, but the main thing is that voters consider these issues less salient than they used to.

Consider Bob McDonnell, a staunch social conservative running in Virginia. He is emphasizing transportation and job creation. That's something you can imagine more Republicans doing, particularly in the regions you describe.

Re: Latinos: I think that Obama won Latinos on economic issues, not primarily on a cultural appeal. And my guess is that Republicans will have to do the same. Latino voters were heavily concentrated in hard-hit states, and they were heavily impacted by the collapse of the housing market. To win support among Latinos, Republicans need to do the same things they need to do to win support among all middle and working class voters.

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Tuscaloosa, Ala.: Why do conservative pundits give Sarah Palin accolades for giving a substantive policy speech in Hong Kong? Is there any doubt that it was Randy Schenuemann's speech and ideas, and not Palin's? It seems that Palin was simply reciting something written for her and that she really doesn't understand the policies in her speech. Why are conservatives so enamored by her?

Reihan Salam: In fairness, this is standard practice for politicians. The question is -- is this person exercising good judgment? And that's an open question.

Conservatives like and admire Palin for many reasons. Just as Barack Obama represented a certain ideal type -- smart, cosmopolitan, formidable intellectual credentials -- she represents another: a working mother, small business owner, independent-minded, family-oriented, common-sense conservative. Now, I think that the truth doesn't always line up with the image in either case. But that's what I think is going on.

Moreover, when conservatives see Palin sharply criticized, there's a strong tendency to rally around the flag. People like underdogs. I've seen the movie "Hoosiers" at least a dozen times.

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Washington, D.C.: The current perception of the GOP is that it is dominated by southern, white, male, protestant evangelicals.

Also, as Joe Wilson's recent outburst ("You lie") and during Pres. Obama's speech joint session of Congress and Sarah Palin's "Real America" remark demonstrates there is a still a hint of racism lurking within the GOP.

How does the GOP shed this image in addition to being labeled the "party of the rich"?

Reihan Salam: Well, there are a few different questions here: I actually don't think that racism is animating conservative criticisms of Obama, though I'm sure that's true of some critics. As Obama argued a short while ago, the debate over the size and role of the federal government has been going on since at least Andrew Jackson, and it's been sharp to say the least. Polarized politics is arguably the norm.

Shedding the image will require some combination of candidate recruitment and a message that emphasizes economic opportunity for middle and working class voters -- the GOP could brand itself as the party of upward mobility.

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Montgomery County, Md.: OK - so far you keep talking about things Repubs need to do.

Well - what ARE those things? That's why the Repubs are getting the bum rap. They don't have any answers.

It's sad.... because they were good until Bush/Cheney came along and now, they can't get out from under them (so to speak).

Until they have something concrete to say - well, they are going to be known as the party of NO.

Reihan Salam: You can check out Grand New Party, the book I co-authored with Ross Douthat, or some of my columns. To give you a short answer, I think Republicans should focus on the cost of living -- the burdens facing families who are struggling to make economic progress. Circa 1979-1980, federal income taxes were an outsized burden for the median income family. Now it's more likely to be health insurance premiums, state and local taxes, the cost of housing and education. So rather than focus exclusively on federal income taxes, my sense is that Republicans would serve themselves well by talking about the full spectrum of issues.

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Sukhumi, Abkhazia, Republic of Georgia: You display shocking lack of understanding of the history of conservatism when you call your ideas conservative. Conservatism has never been about ideas, simply because real ideas are always radical, and radicalism is profoundly anti-conservative. You have ideas, or claim to. So why don't you come out as a radical, an anarchist, a sampler of wild thoughts, rather than allow yourself to be called a conservative thinker?

Reihan Salam: There are, as you know, a variety of different ways to understand conservatism. I wouldn't say that there is only one conservative tradition. The tradition I identify with is a distinctive tradition that emerged in the postwar United States, and that was pioneered by Irving Kristol: the basic view is that we need to appreciate the limits of what the federal government can accomplish, yet, as Hayek argued, that a modern state is obligated to provide a decent social minimum consonant with maintaining a free and open economy.

Suffice to say, there's a lot of disagreement about this.

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Annapolis, Md.: I was going to ask whether you thought the GOP could become competitive on voter-economic issues. In the 40s the Dems got a lot of traction from Social Security and the minimum wage; in the 80s the GOP got a lot of traction from income tax cuts. I don't think the nation can afford to cut tax rates further (tax loopholes, yes, but tax rates, no), so it seems that a new issue is needed. But your approach of being pro-competition and pro-consumer might move in this direction. Could the GOP say that it is for the little guy because it promotes free trade which means lower prices?

Reihan Salam: I think that the pro-trade position you describe is the *right* one to take. I also don't think it's very popular, unfortunately. My hope is that conservative politicians would make the argument regardless in the hopes of winning over the public. But for better or for worse, incumbents are interested primarily in remaining incumbents. This is a short-sighted strategy. A longer view would do what you describe: emphasize policies that deliver *real* benefits for workers.

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Boston: When will the conservatives realize that currently the "real America" is closer to Rosanne and Dan than Ozzie and Harriet?

Reihan Salam: By that I assume you mean two working parents? I actually think that conservatives do appreciate this -- this is one reason why Sarah Palin resonated so strongly with grassroots conservatives. But I agree that an understanding of the particular needs of two-earner families suggest certain domestic reforms, including Social Security reforms that are fairer for secondary earners. And there are a number of conservatives who've written about this for years -- it hasn't translated to the political scene very effectively, at least not yet. That has to change.

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From a Conservative: As a strong conservative who's pretty disgusted with both parties right now: I don't see our leadership coming from anyone who's currently in DC.

The best conservative presidents -- Reagan, Bush, Eisenhower, Coolidge -- have come from governorships and the military, where you have to actually manage -- as opposed to the Senate or House, where your main job is fundraising and running for reelection.

Reihan Salam: I agree with you. The 2008 election was very unusual: of the two major-party tickets, we had one governor -- and she had been governor for a very brief period. It does seem that executive experience is valuable, for conservative or for liberal presidents.

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Laurel, Md.: A brief review of (possibly subjective) facts:

1. The Republican electoral map is completely inversely related to population density

2. They no longer have a single House member from New England or Senator outside Maine

3. America becomes more urban/suburban all the time

When I was kid in the 70s, I lived in a liberal area of a liberal state, Montgomery County, MD, but was represented in Congress by three Republicans -- Gilbert Gude, Charles Matthias and J. Glen Beall. Today both parties seem to have no ideological breadth, which I think really depreciates the quality of politics because it makes the ideological lines the same as the partisan ones.

What should the Republicans do to develop an "urban version" in which the likes of Rudy Giuliani, Lincoln Chafee or Mitt Romney are just as much a part of their mainstream as Newt Gingrich and Trent Lott?

Reihan Salam: Well, I don't think it's possible for the GOP to have the breadth you describe -- the former senator from Rhode Island was in many respects a staunch liberal. I do think, however, that Republicans would be well served by having a stronger presence in the cities and inner suburbs. There are many ways to get there. The main thing is to emphasize the issues that are relevant to those voters, including quality-of-life issues relating to traffic congestion and crime control and the availability of high-quality schools.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: I see a genuine conflict for conservatism. If it is the goal of conservatives to make things more affordable, then conservatives should look at ways to lower health care costs in total, perhaps by expanding Medicaid to all. If it is the goal to reduce only to reduce public costs, then they have to be willing to allow the private market to raise costs at the expense of lowered public costs. For instance, we can reduce government regulations yet allowing the free market to decide could result in higher costs to consumers. For instance, privatized schools or privatized prisons possibly will cost more than public schools or public prisons, as these entities will need to include a profit margin that does not exist in the public model. What do you see as the role of conservatism: make life easier and more affordable to the public, or reduce the role of government in our lives?

Reihan Salam: These are subjects of tremendous debate. Very briefly, my sense is that the dramatic expansion of public programs will eventually have to be paid for through taxes -- the real route to lower prices for higher quality is competition. Not pathological cost-shifting competition, which we have now in the health insurance sector. So we need reforms that work to that end, and fortunately conservatives have been working on this issue for years. I'm cautiously optimistic.

This is a very complex issue and I hate to oversimplify. Fortunately, I write a lot about this at National Review's Agenda blog, so please check it out.

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Queenstown, Md.: David Brooks and David Frum have been a regular tag team in blaming the Republican/conservative woes on the likes of radio talk show hosts and Sarah Palin. Isn't the original catalyst of Republican decline the expensive and misguided war and occupation of Iraq (4,000 dead, 20,000 wounded, about $ 1 trillion spent), a war that the two Davids supported vigorously? It seems to this conservative that the policies that David Frum and David Brooks endorsed were more damaging to Republicans than what Rush Limbaugh blurts over the airways 5 days a week.

Reihan Salam: Check out Brooks's most recent column on radio talk show hosts -- his core point is that while they are influential, it is elected Republican officials who have the most influence. I think that's right. And that means they should be held accountable for their decisions.

Re: Iraq: there's a lot of honest disagreement about this. The Iraq war did indeed drag down support for President Bush, but conservative politicians were having difficulty adapting to the post-Reagan political landscape long before for many of the reasons Brooks and Frum describe -- a failure to connect with suburban voters, professionals, new immigrant communities, etc.

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Richmond, Va.: Hello from the Commonwealth of Virginia! I am pretty diverse in WHO I will vote for. I voted for Obama. I will probably vote for McDonnell (R) for Gov. And will probably NOT vote for Obama in 2012. And I like our Senator Mark Warner (D).

I for one am glad the GOP is crying out: No taxes! Stop the spending! Stop the borrowing! Etc! I frankly see this as a vital function in our current state of politics in America. And I firmly believe the loud NO is what is keeping the USA from becoming a 1980s style social European nation. Can the prophetic "no" carry the GOP to a big victory in 2010? I seem to think some solutions will have to be offered for 2012. But, is the mood in the country one of wanting to put on the brakes? Thus, the NO being effective.

Reihan Salam: Greetings! I do think that a "No" stance will serve Republicans fairly well in 2010. But I don't think it will serve them well in 2012 or 2016. Unfortunately, the economic environment we're facing means that we really need to revamp the way the federal government does business across many different domains. That might mean rebalancing responsibilities between the state and federal governments, and it might mean a combination of spending cuts and tax increases to the right the ship. I tend to think that the party that levels with the American public about what has to be done will be rewarded for it. But that could be crazy.

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Arlington, Va.: The Republican Party needs to allow its moderates to lead the party into a new era, resembling the qualities that George H.W. Bush (as his true self) brought to the party in his political career: intelligence, integrity, character, and strength mixed with compassion. Sen. Olympia Snowe and Gov. Schwarzenegger are currently leading the party by example and my hope is that other Republicans will follow their lead. The radicalism and religious zealotry within the party has alienated many would-be voters over the years, and it's time to ditch this constituency and appeal more to the mainstream and today's demographics. I would like to see Sen. Snowe run for president in 2012 with that intention in mind.

Reihan Salam: I have to say, I don't think Governor Schwarzenegger -- for all his admirable qualities -- is the best model for the GOP going forward. There were many Republican governors who became popular in the 1990s by cutting taxes and increasing spending. Had Schwarzenegger been a boom-time governor, I'm convinced he'd be massively popular. But governing under straitened circumstances demands a different set of skills.

And I also don't think that religious zealotry is what's at work. To some degree this is a generational issue: younger evangelical conservatives tend to see things differently from their older counterparts as they know the devoutly religious have a place at the political table. But national politics wasn't always so welcoming. The tone will change because of this generational shift.

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Silver Spring, Md.: I think the problem for the GOP is that their message is "We're just like Democrats, only less so".

They stand for high taxes, deficit spending, ever-expanding Federal Government Authority, world-wide military interventionism, etc. Just not as much as the Democrats do (with the possible exception of military interventionism).

This tactic might win an individual election here and there, but it's a poor grand strategy. Most voters will compare them to democrats and vote for the candidate giving away the most ice cream.

The GOP needs to return to it's Limited Gov't, Constitutional roots. The GOP used to get elected by running on a platform to end wars. (Read Mises, Hayek please!)

If the GOP gives the voter a clear, stark alternative, then when the current "progressive" ideas fail (and they certainly will), then voters will have somewhere to turn.

If they won't do this, the GOP may as well pitch a tent and start enjoying the wilderness.

Reihan Salam: I'm looking forward to a debate between Ron Paul libertarians and reform conservatives who want to make the welfare state cheaper and more effective rather than getting rid of it. What I don't want is a status quo in which you have conservatives pretend to be Ron Paul libertarians while backing massive spending ... without paying for it.

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If you want my vote, stop belittling me: Look, I vote in NH and I won't be voting for Mrs. Ayotte no matter what her policies are because I have listened to Republicans denigrate me and everyone I love and respect for thirty years. It's that simple. I have not forgotten Dick Armey's insult that Massachusetts is not "the real America." That was mild compared to what often was said.

Yes, the GOP may pick up a couple of seats here and there but until there is an acceptance that one can be a loyal American without being a religious southern gun owner, the GOP is not going to take back New England. Sorry. It's not policy. It's respect.

Reihan Salam: You make a reasonable point. But keep in mind that many white southern evangelicals feel the same way about Democrats. You might find this absurd, but it's worth trying to look at this from the other side.

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Re: From a Conservative: G.W.Bush, former governor of Texas. Granted, a Texan, I can say that governor is a figure-head almost, but please don't just say that governor = responsible.

Reihan Salam: That's definitely true. I do think I said "executive experience," and some governors have more than others. Some corporate executives or mayors have more than some governors, etc.

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Poolesville: Picking up on the generational evangelical issue -- is the younger generation more accommodating to different lifestyles (not just gays, but professional women and sexually active singles) than the older one. I don't see a Pat Robertson clone doing anything but splitting the country 80/20 between the tolerant and traditionalist.

Reihan Salam: Yes, I think the younger generation is more accepting. To be sure, not everyone thinks that this is a good thing. But it reflects the demographic realities of the 21st century US.

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Boston: Reihan - you keep mentioning issues that the GOP should focus on to help connect with every day people in suburbs and cities, but the Republicans only offer tax cuts and deregulation and defense spending as economic policy, and evangelicalism as social policy. The GOP has made themselves irrelevant for people, because they can't articulate any coherent reason for governing. Why would people who need effective government vote for Republicans who seem to be opposed to government, except for when it comes to their own health care and paycheck?

Reihan Salam: I don't think this a good characterization of Mike Castle or Mark Kirk or Steve Poizner or Bob Inglis or Jeff Flake or Tom Petri or Bob McDonnell or ... I see where you're coming from. Note that a lot of the candidates I've mentioned are on the margins of the Republican mainstream. But this is a process. Winning back the trust of the public will take a long, long time.

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Las Cruces, N.M.: Sir,

One of the reasons non-ideological voters identify with the Democrats is that they interact with liberal programs daily. Medicare, for instance. I suggest that government programs that require citizen involvement (G.I. Bill, etc) are often the most popular. Conservatives should develop such "sweat-equity" programs to build similar affinity with voters. For instance, giving foreclosed homes in inner-cities to low-income voters willing to rehab them. This obviates the charge that the right is a one-note party...tax-cuts, tax-cuts, tax-cuts.

Reihan Salam: This strikes me as a smart observation. Irving Kristol made very similar arguments.

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Reihan Salam: I haven't been able to get to every question, unfortunately, but let's do this again next week. I'll learn to type faster in the meantime ...

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