Surviving Obama: Reihan Salam hosts a free-wheeling conversation about the Republican future

Reihan Salam
New America Foundation Fellow
Wednesday, October 14, 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: This has been a very consequential week. We have a lot of very broad questions, which I'm looking forward to addressing. In the future, I'm going to try to focus our conversations a bit more on particular policy areas.

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Bethesda, Md.: I think this country will not survive. It will be no longer a country for the people, by the people but a country for the government by the government. I love America despite the democrats insisting that any against Obama hates it and are therefore terrorists. I think that what we need is for people to realize the government was never meant to be this large. But I fear that this country will continue to be America only in name but not by virtue and ideals.

Reihan Salam: I am confident that this country is very resilient. While there are certainly Democrats who are very distrustful of critics of the president, there are Republicans who don't appreciate that Democrats have the country's best interests at heart. I really believe that a small amount of empathy would make a huge difference in our politics. But unfortunately, we're not likely to see that happen -- in a very competitive political environment, the emphasis is on energizing your loyalists.

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Alexandria, Va.: Seems to me that the Republicans in the Senate essentially ceded the crafting of the health plan to Olympia Snow, thus making her the sole voice of the loyal opposition. To me, this is either blind-sided, lazy, or just stupid to miss this opportunity to have an impact on a national policy. Your take?

Reihan Salam: This is a very good question. Many believe that had more Republicans been engaged with the process of crafting health reform legislation, they could have moved it in a more conservative direction that could have achieved a broader consensus. I find this idea very appealing, but my guess is that it isn't really true -- there are very deep disagreements. Bob Corker, for example, was optimistic about the possibility of getting 7-8 Republicans to back a bill that emphasized universal catastrophic coverage rather than universal comprehensive coverage. But I really don't think you'd get enough Democrats to back this proposal for a wide variety of reasons. The two sides were genuinely far apart.

Now, I'm not so sure about, say, Chuck Grassley. It could be that he was mainly worried about a primary challenge. My real worry is that the kind of "centrist" compromise that's emerge will end up proving far more counterproductive than a plan that emphasized catastrophic coverage and HSAs, or a plan like Ezekiel Emanuel's proposal that funds universal health vouchers out of a dedicated tax base for all eligible families.

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Boston : The title of your Chat is so offensive to a sizable majority of Americans. I realize being offensive is part of the GOP DNA, but why not change to something fresh like "What Up"

Reihan Salam: I understand where you're coming from -- I don't think it strikes exactly the right note. I think the idea was, "How can *Republicans* survive Obama," meaning how can the GOP flourish under a Democratic president. But that's obviously not how a lot of readers see it. I think you can judge for yourself whether the tone of this conversation is temperate and civil.

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Arlington, Va.: A private property/free market economy made sense for the 19th century, as it facilitated local development at a time when communication and transportation were slow, cumbersome, and unreliable. The technological developments of the 20th and 21st centuries have eased communication and transportation over great distances, making development less dependent upon local control. Why not make all capital allocation and economic development decisions in Washington, where they can reflect the will of the people instead of merely the will of private individuals and entities responsive primarily to those with capital? Wouldn't a reduction in private capital accumulation strengthen the democracy component of our nation?

Reihan Salam: Dear Arlington:

It's very hard for me to give your question the comprehensive answer it deserves. You might be interested in Tyler Cowen's observations on what he calls the "paradox of libertarianism," which you can find here: http://www.cato-unbound.org/2007/03/11/tyler-cowen/the-paradox-of-libertarianism/He argues that technological change really does encourage the growth of government, and more specifically of centralized government.

My view is influenced by Hayek: basically, decentralization is a good thing. A decentralized process allows people to engage in various experiments to figure out, in a messy way that will involve a lot of wasted effort, how to do things better than we're doing things now.

And it's by no means clear to me that a reduction in private capital accumulation will strengthen democracy. I can imagine it doing exactly the opposite by undermining challenges to incumbent institutions of all kinds. Part of the reason we have a constitutional democracy, as John Hart Ely argued, is to avoid the entrenchment of elected elites -- the creation of self-perpetuating institutions through efforts to rig the democratic process. And the same logic applies, I think, to the way we regulate firms.

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How To Win!: There is only one way for the Republican party to regain its lost relevance with America's voters. Party leadership needs to strip Faux Republicans like Snowe, Collins and Graham of any and all power and have them resign the party. Until folks see that we are committed to being a true-blue conservative party that doesn't allow individual members to compromise the party ideology we will not be given the opportunity to govern again.

Reihan Salam: Well, I don't agree with you on this -- I think that successful political parties tend to be broad coalitions, with all the frustrations than entails. But it is possible for a coalition to be *too broad.* I'm just not sure that's the main problem facing the GOP at the moment.

I'll add this: parties can strengthen democracy by providing voters with reliable heuristics. When I vote for Democrats, I can expect policy X, when I vote for Republicans, I can expect policy Y. That's one reason why Democrats have a very good point when they say they won the election on promising health reform. At the same time, Republicans have good reason to say, "Hey, the president promised not to raise taxes on under-250K voters!"

In my view, Republicans need to allow more dissent while agreeing on a few core principles, the most important of which is that decentralization and what my friend Tim Lee calls a "bottom-up" approach to institutions and markets is generally preferably to a "top-down" approach.

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Houston, Tex.: Democrats claiming that Republican critics of President Obama are anti-American are merely enjoying throwing that charge back in the faces of Republicans who so gleefully did that during the Bush years. Childish? Yes. Understandable? Also yes.

Reihan Salam: That's a very fair point.

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DC girl, New Yorker by heart: I have a suggestion - stop bashing cities and people who live in them. I always knew that you guys didn't really care about NYC but it's shocking to see your disregard for NYC and other cities since 9-11. FYI - Wyoming wasn't attacked by Al Qaeda, NYC and DC were. Propping candidates like that idiot Sarah Palin with her "pro-America" attachments to small towns is no way to appeal to us.

Reihan Salam: I'm from Brooklyn, live in Washington, and love cities. You're right that Republicans have increasingly written off many of the country's biggest metropolitan areas, and that's a mistake. Now, however, we're seeing a shift towards conservative candidates who are making a strong effort in inner suburbs and among minority voters, like Bob McDonnell.

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Health Care reform: The most vocal supporters of the National Health System in the U.K. is the Conservative Party. In the U.S. the only demographic to vote Republican in the last election were those people enjoying government funded health insurance (Medicare) and income insurance.

Why is the GOP so adamant in its opposition to Health Care reform?

I realize that 16 years ago Bill Kristol made the provocative case that its implementation would be the death knell of conservatism, but the record is exceptionally clear: The man has been wrong on every single point he has offered in the intervening 16 years...which leads to the conclusion that the GOP and modern conservatism can both continue to thrive in an America where people don't have to file for bankruptcy if they get sick.

Reihan Salam: This is a great question. Basically, the broad health reform message that first emerged from the White House is that we could finance high-quality universal coverage by finding savings in the Medicare system. This might be right. But it's hardly surprising that it created a lot of anxiety among older voters, who are overrepresented in midterm electorates. For Republicans to *not* pounce on this would be a bit like Democrats in 2006 and 2008 saying, "You know what, we disagree with this Iraq War thing, but President Bush means well. Let's cut him some slack on this."

The analogy isn't perfect by any means! But politicians are people who've managed to convince themselves that it is vitally important that they win elections. (This is why I could never be a politician.) So you're not likely to cede an advantage.

As for the UK, this is a very tricky issue. Basically, there are a lot of Conservatives, like Douglas Carswell and Daniel Hannan, who favor radical reform of the NHS. This is a widely held view among grassroots conservatives in Britain. Yet the Conservatives are focused on winning marginal constituencies. And to that end, they've worked to neutralize fears that they want to "dismantle" the NHS. This is also complicated by Tony Blair's efforts to reform the NHS, drawing on the Thatcher-Major efforts to create "internal markets." So ironically, the more pro-market party has become the defender of the NHS and the NHS workforce -- because that's where the political opportunity was find. It's very similar to the GOP on Medicare now.

People are afraid of change. This is bad news for reformers from the left and the right.

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Washington, DC: Do you see foreign policy emerging as a major issue within the Republican party? Eight years of George W. Bush have made interventionist, neo-conservative foreign policy the standard position of Republican activists. Yet it wasn't that long ago that the party had a significant non- interventionist camp, and the grassroots enthusiasm for the Ron Paul campaign suggests that this perspective remains a significant minority. Do you see this minority view growing in influence, and perhaps becoming an issue in the 2012 or 2016 primary campaigns? Or will the GOP be the hawkish party for the foreseeable future?

Reihan Salam: This is a really terrific question. I absolutely do see foreign policy emerging as a potential dividing line. It really depends on what happens in Afghanistan in the near term. Had President Obama committed himself to a costly counterinsurgency strategy, he would have the support of many leading conservative voices, including defense hawks in Congress like John McCain. Yet support for the war has sharply declined among rank-and-file conservatives, and it's been low among liberals for a long time.

Now, however, the president seems to be moving away from that approach to one that is more narrowly focused on Al Qaeda. And this might lead to a different line of attack from conservatives, namely that the president is too weak.

More broadly, I absolutely think that there will be a large and growing anti-interventionist wing of the party. If Afghanistan fades as a frontline foreign policy issue (this will take time), the salience of 9/11 national security politics will sharply decline. And then the issue will become great power competition with China, etc. -- issues that are far less appealing on a gut-level when weighed against the considerable costs of the national security state.

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Laurel, Md.: As a liberal democrat, I am perfectly fine with criticism leveled at Obama. We must constantly hold our leaders accountable for their choices, behavior and stand up for what we believe at ALL TIMES. However, stop criticizing and come up with solutions. That would be a wonderful new and refreshing idea.

Reihan Salam: I agree -- this is why I recommend you read some of my work!

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Entrenchment of elected elites: "Part of the reason we have a constitutional democracy, as John Hart Ely argued, is to avoid the entrenchment of elected elites -- the creation of self-perpetuating institutions through efforts to rig the democratic process."

Have you seen the jerrymandered Congressional districts in Texas and elsewhere? Do you wonder why we have retreated to the extreme wings of both parties? Entrenched indeed...

Reihan Salam: There is a strong anti-entrenchment case against partisan gerrymandering. But as Alan Abramowitz has argued, partisan gerrymandering is a relatively small part of the reason why we have a more polarized Congress. We also have a more polarized electorate, and partisans of internal migration that reinforce this tendency.

I like how you seem to hold me personally accountable for partisan gerrymandering. If I had that kind of power, I would conjure up a delicious turkey sandwich to appear in front of me right now, as I'm pretty hungry.

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Winnipeg, Canada: In addressing the prospects for the Republican Party, I am reminded of the John Stuart Mill quote that not all conservatives are stupid people, but all stupid people are conservative. Once you get beyond the snicker factor, I think the quote represents your current dilemma well.

On the one hand, the GOP profits from the in-the-bag base of stupid people, who by definition are easy to persuade. The electoral task then becomes a contest between the GOP and the Dems for smart voters, and as Mill said, some conservatives are smart (and some conservative strategists are very smart indeed). The voting demographic should be a formula for a permanent conservative majority, if I could borrow a phrase: if the stupid vote is 20 percent, the GOP needs to win only 37.5 percent of the remaining 80 percent to win, but the Dems need to win 62.5 percent of that group to win. That's a huge gap, so why don't conservatives win all the time?

As I see it, the problem the GOP faces is that the stupid vote has become so vocal, and those who pander to it have drawn so much attention (Beck and Limbaugh, for instance) that the stupid vote has turned the smart vote away from the GOP. And if the GOP tries to tamp down the panderers to the stupid vote, they will be accused of stifling free speech.

Reihan Salam: This is an interesting theory of the world, and you seem pretty happy with it, so I'm content to leave it at that.

Suffice it to say, I think that stupid people are distributed across the political spectrum. I also think that stupid people tend to have inordinate confidence in their views, regardless of the content of those views.

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Boston: I'm a liberal but I would like to understand the conservative viewpoint better on some issues. Like student loans and Medical Advantage where the government tried contracting out work to banks and insurance companies on the premise that it would save money since businesses can do everything more efficiently than government. A fair way to figure out if that premise was true. But results have shown that it costs the government more money to do it that way. To me, it seems obvious we should now shut those experiments down. But Republicans are against that. Why? In the same way, the public option seems to me to be a "free market" (in as much as health insurance is a free market now) way of testing the effectiveness of single payer. Why are Republicans against that as well, if care is taken to be sure it's not tax-payer subsidized differently than the private companies?

Reihan Salam: Excellent question -- tough to get into in a short answer, but the key thing to understand with MA plans is that they are not really in an open competition with Medicare FFS. If Medicare FFS were a defined-benefit system, its cost profile would look very different. And if we had a defined-benefit Medicare FFS competing against Medicare Advantage managed-care plans, I think it's safe to say that the latter would "win." Instead, we have a pretty complex bidding system that has led to MA plans costing roughly 10-15 percent more. Keep in mind, however, that MA plans reimburse providers *at higher rates that Medicare FFS.* So again, it's not really an apples to apples comparison. This is not to say I'm happy with how MA works. But the issue is a bit more complicated than MA critics allow.

Re: student loans, I think there's a far stronger case for cutting out the middleman -- the regulated, heavily subsidized "private" industry doesn't seem to be much of a private industry at all. But this is an issue I'd have to study more closely.

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Anonymous: No, Reihan, it's not a "very fair point." First of all, what mainstream Republican actually said it was un-American to criticize Bush? That was largely a strawman constructed by the left. But even if it did happen, the defense was supposed to be that it was inherently outrageous and beyond the pale to "question the patriotism" of someone who disagreed with you. Yet now that kind of rhetoric seems to flourish far more openly among mainstream Democrats than it ever did on the other side.

Reihan Salam: This isn't my area of expertise and, to tell you the truth, I don't find it very interesting. What I care about is creating a prosperous and more open economy. Yelling back and forth strikes me as pretty unedifying. I'm sorry to say that I tend to tune out when Ds call Rs un-American and vice versa.

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Laurel, Md.: This may be more of an economic than political question, but in EJ Dionne's recent Angry White Men column, he makes the point that the economic achievement of non-college educated whites has declined a great deal in the last three decades. I bet that if you looked who voted for Clinton twice and Bush II twice, most would fit that category.

What can be done to improve the economic performance of that group, and how can it be made part of the Republican platform, with it's pro-finance, pro-big business ideology?

washingtonpost.com: Responding to Authentic Rage (Post, Oct. 12)

Reihan Salam: This is a great question, and it's hard to answer. For one thing, the economic situation of the non-college voters is actually hard to interpret -- it's not clear that we've measured the cost of living appropriately, and it also seems that Americans living in different metro areas and consuming different baskets of goods have faced different effective inflation rates. Regardless, it is certainly true that many middle class and working class families feel financially strapped, and that R (and D) policies haven't made an appreciable difference.

Part of the danger Republicans like Keith Hennessey have noted with the Baucus bill is that it might lead to accelerating cost growth, higher insurance premiums, and thus lower wages (as wages would represent a declining share of total compensation). There's a lot of debate about this.

I tend to think we need a smart approach to encouraging work, i.e., we need to identify work disincentives in the tax code and mitigate them. I also think that we need to make smarter investment in human capital and infrastructure, etc. My friend and co-author Ross Douthat and I wrote a lot about this in Grand New Party, and I focus on this broad set of issues in my columns for Forbes.com.

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Evanston, Ill.: Will a Tory victory in the coming British elections persuade the GOP to reconcile itself to gay rights and universal health care?

Reihan Salam: I doubt it. Britain has a very different electorate. I do think, however, that the U.S. electorate is also changing, and that over time Republicans will have to allow more disagreement on social issues in particular. With regard to universal health care, there's a great deal of debate over what it ought to look like -- I can't imagine Republicans embracing something like the NHS, and for good reason.

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Laurel, Md.: I would love to understand what smaller government means? Does that mean allowing the business and economic environment to control what happens in our lives with no govt interference? I think that one of the main failings of the Republican party is what exactly do you stand for? I feel that this message is not effectively communicated. Also, what are the Republican answers to the financial recession, gay rights, etc? To me, they seem to be floundering.

Reihan Salam: No, I don't think that's what it means. In the most sympathetic light, it means creating a private sector economy that is big and flourishing -- so big and flourishing that, as in the 1990s, the size of the federal government shrinks as a slice of GDP, and a more affluent citizenry can meet more social needs through decentralized solutions, whether privately or through local institutions. This doesn't mean that government won't have a role -- in fact, it might allow us to focus public resources more effectively on a narrower set of issues. That's the idea in a nutshell. (There are, of course, other versions of what small government is/should mean.)

As for those other questions, I think the answers are still evolving. I have my own views, of course, but I wouldn't attribute them to all conservatives.

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Waldorf, Md.: How can we trust the leaders again after they held absolute power (House, Senate, White House & Sup Court) for 6 years and failed to do anything significant domestically? They even did very unconservative things - federalizing education, farm bill, Medicare drug benefit, etc. Hasn't the party proven they don't really care about the issues that motivate people like me to vote for them?

Reihan Salam: If Republicans are going to win again, they need to win back the trust of voters like you. That will, as you suggest, take a really long time. Or this will happen due to unforced errors on the part of Democrats.

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Vienna, Va.: Reihan, to our dear friend in Bethesda who's convinced America will collapse under the Democrats. He appears to be upset that the country will falter because Dems would like to extend the government's role in keeping people healthy or employed, through the stimulus plan or propping up GM and Chrysler for a while.

I'm willing to bet he didn't mind so much when the Bush administration and Republicans in Congress extended the government's role in attacking other countries preemptively or spying on citizens without warrants or keeping Terri Schiavo "alive" when she was already dead or worrying whether two men want to be husband and husband. Somehow some of your friends on the right forget these things when they worry about the size and scope of government.

Reihan Salam: Some people believe that we'd more effectively keep people healthy or employed with less of a government role. For example, if the stimulus proves fiscally unsustainable (a case made by economist Jeffrey Sachs, who was a scathing critic of the Bush administration), it might prompt deeper economic problems in the future. I'm not saying this view is *right* -- just that honest people can disagree about these issues.

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Queen Anne's County, Md.: I'm a working class small businessman who's tired of the Republican Party doing the bidding of big businesses who betray the working class on outsourcing and immigration and the neo-conservatives who got the country into wars halfway across the globe and killed thousands of working class conservative-oriented young men. Is the Republican Party so obtuse that it does not realize that they continuously stab the white working class in the back but expect political support?

Reihan Salam: Unfortunately, I think that there is a large and growing number of Republicans and Democrats who agree with you on offshoring -- the idea that allowing firms to contract with overseas firms is a dangerous development that destroys jobs. My sense is that it can help increase our overall productivity and allow Americans to move up the value-chain. But if you want both parties to turn away from free trade, I have a bad feeling that you're going to get your wish. Easy answers are always popular.

As for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is a lot of honest disagreement about them. I'm one of those folks who believes that we have good reason to have a military presence in both countries. I also think, however, that we need to carefully weight the costs and benefits, and that we need to be very careful before launching military interventions that we can't sustain over the long term.

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"I really believe that a small amount of empathy would make a huge difference in our politics.": But not in the Judicial Branch, correct?

Reihan Salam: Very funny!

There's a tremendous amount of debate about what exactly it is that Supreme Court justices should do. Other Article III judges are supposed to interpret Supreme Court precedent, but Supreme Court precedents are often incoherent and contradictory. I tend to think that the Supreme Court should place greater emphasis on the need to provide clear guidance to the judiciary writ large. And that means, for better or for worse, that empathy isn't the main issue.

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Alexandria, Va.: Having grown up with nationalized health care in my country of origin, I am very scared of the bill that everybody in the Government is trying to make us swallow. But, I am more scared of how Americans have been made to believe that affordable and BETTER QUALITY health care is possible. It is absolutely not. Somebody will have to pay for this and it will be on the middle and working class. The Republicans have the right argument, however they cannot get the message out there. Why is that?

Reihan Salam: I actually do think that we can have more affordable and higher quality care, but only if we allow more so-called "disruptive competition" -- that is, if we allow innovators to create new methods of financing and delivering care. And I worry that the regulations we have in place now already make this very difficult.

That said, you have a point: I think that Americans want an easy answer -- more medical care *and* less spending overall -- that is, as you suggest, impossible. Republicans are having a hard time with this message because it's not fundamentally very popular: no one likes the angry grandfather who says, "Get your own damn nickel!" to the cherubic small child.

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Boston Again: I've read similar defenses of Medical Advantage. But it confuses me why this is an argument to keep Medical Advantage around rather than scrapping that program and designing a different business-run option to try out. I'm all for experimenting but at some point we need to assess the results and dump the programs that didn't end up working, thus freeing up money for new experiments. A problem both D's and R's have on various issues.

Reihan Salam: If we could turn Medicare into a defined-benefit, I'm pretty sure Rs would happily give up Medicare Advantage.

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Washington D.C.: Why at a time of war with Afghanistan are you talking about politics on this petty level?

He is OUR President.

Reihan Salam: I was trying to address a specific question about the likely trajectory of an evolving political argument and I gave an honest answer. I did not only state my personal views on the war in Afghanistan because that would have been unresponsive to the question.

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Washington DC : If I may, There was an article a few weeks ago saying Republicans can't have their tax-cut cake, and eat it too, enshrining current levels of service. So given that no congressman will currently vote to close popular programs, why shouldn't we at least be responsible and pay more taxes for it? Isn't that the conservative angle? I don't like taxes, but the idea that they're awful isn't true.

Reihan Salam: I agree with you 100 percent. The only time Congress has ever restrained spending has been, when William Niskanen of the Cato Institute has noted, when we've also raised taxes. I think the goal for conservatives should be maintaining a low tax rate over time, rather than slashing them now only to allow the debt to balloon so that we'll have to raise them later.

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Reihan Salam: There are many, many more great questions in the queue, and I haven't been able to get to all of them. I really hope you'll come back next week for more. I'm going to learn to type faster somehow.

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