After Obama: GOP apologies, governor races and secular conservatives

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Reihan Salam
New America Foundation Fellow
Wednesday, October 21, 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.

The 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: Welcome everyone! We're talking about Republican races in 2010 and much else besides. Let's get started.

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Tampa, Fla.: To what extent do you see the Crist-Rubio race as representing the debate over the future of the GOP? The Florida GOP can choose between a moderate, inclusive candidate who's willing to work with others (Crist), and a far more conservative candidate who seems to want to appeal to the GOP base of religious, social, and economic conservatives.

Polls show Rubio making a lot of headway in catching up with Crist, but having a much harder time winning the general election.

Reihan Salam: I think there is more to the Crist-Rubio race than a fight between (relative) left and (relative) right.

Though Jeb Bush is neutral in the race, Rubio is positioning himself as his heir. And while Jeb was often characterized as a hard-right ideologue, the truth is more complicated; though Bush and Rubio are both anti-tax -- sometimes stridently so -- they're both very interested in how government works. Bush was praised for his forward-leaning approach to emergency preparedness, and in a recent address to conservatives he praised the Obama administration's approach to education reform.

In a similar vein, Rubio spent much of his career in state politics positioning himself as an innovative conservative problem-solver, who worked closely with Democrats on emergency aid to counties and other issues.

I'm going to quote from Rubio.

"I am not anti-government. I believe that government is an important institution in a successful society—I just do not believe that it is the most important institution. Government‘s job is to create regulations that protect public safety and the environment. To provide help to parents, families and the civil society in raising children. To provide the rule of law needed to have a robust and competitive economic climate. To provide a safety net to catch people who get lost in economic competition so they can stand up and try again. And to help those who are elderly, disabled or sick and cannot provide for themselves."

On social issues:

"I could care less what people do in the privacy of their home, a long as they are not hurting anyone else. After all, your rights end where mine begin. By the same token however, I do not think you can separate the social and moral well being of your people from their economic and physical well being."

And this is something many independent voters would appreciate:

"I am passionate about my beliefs and the policies I think will help advance those beliefs. But I also recognize that I have been wrong in the past, and I try to always be willing to be proven wrong."

Now, however, the energy in the Republican base is coming from the tea-party movement, which is one reason why Rubio is emphasizing his anti-tax, anti-spending credentials.

And as for Crist, one could describe him as moderate and inclusive -- yet he maintains that the best way to fix the country's economy is to cut taxes. On criminal justice issues, he's best known for taking very draconian stands. A lot of the conservative hostility to Crist comes from his decision to back President Obama's stimulus package -- but consider that Crist brags about cutting state taxes: in a sense, the federal stimulus was a bailout of Crist and other profligate governors who, unlike Mitch Daniels, didn't pare back spending during the boom.

Rubio isn't perfect and neither is Crist. But the idea that conservative opposition to Crist is based solely on intolerance strikes me as incorrect -- it's also based on the fact that Crist does not have an unblemished record.

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St. Mary's City, Md.: Since Nixon, the Republican Party has been an alliance of small-government advocates and groups opposed to social change for different reasons, such as the religious right. The first group seems to be motivated by economic philosophy, and I can respect that position.

But the second group seems to have no philosophy other than personal resentment, viewing issues in binary terms. They make big government the scapegoat for all their complaints but they also favor big-government solutions in trying to stop or even reverse social change. The town-hall protesters this past summer didn't have a coherent political philosophy - they just seemed frightened and desperate to blame someone.

That type of unfocused resentment is no basis for a political party, and may end up splitting the GOP. During Obama's presidency the party has acted increasingly as an obstructionist, as opposed to pushing alternatives to the Administration's agenda. I suspect the obstructionism is a desperate tactic to keep the GOP's alliance together.

So which side do you think might leave the party? I can see both sides fielding their own candidates in 2012, with Palin or Huckabee leading a coalition dominated by the religious right, and someone like Pawlenty leading a coalition of moderates and small-government advocates. Which one would likely bear the GOP name?

Reihan Salam: One thing to keep in mind is that the Republican Party doesn't seek the respect of voters -- rather, it seeks to win elections. The same is true of the Democrats. My guess is that many diehard conservatives, like those taking part in the tea-party movement, don't have a huge amount of respect for the motivations of congressional Democrats. Yet I don't think Democrats are losing any sleep over it, for better or for worse.

And as for the tea-party protesters, it is certainly true that they have a complex mix of motivations -- this will be true of any diverse group. But I can promise you that there are at least some consistent libertarians in their ranks, just as there were some consistent pacifists who marched in opposition to the Iraq War, along with thousands of other less consistent, less reflexive, and less ideological citizens.

This idea of GOP politics as resentment-fueled is interesting and I think there is something to it. But of course I think that a lot of our politics, on the left and right, is resentment-fueled. It takes a lot to get people who are financially strapped to write checks -- even small donations -- to politicians. During the Bush years, large numbers of voters who never thought of themselves as very political were motivated to take part in electoral politics and to make donations for the first time. This was driven by real resentment -- a sense that the Bush Administration was egregiously breaking with America's constitutional traditions, and much else. We're seeing that on the other side.

I don't like the rancorous tone. But this is where we are. Political engagement is always most intense when people are angry and afraid, not when people are feeling prosperous and content.

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Helena, Mont.: When polling results are reported, they are usually national averages. But regional breakdowns show that the South is out-of-step with the rest of the country in a major way. The GOP is much more popular in the South than it is in the Northeast (where it is in single digits), the West (where it has fewer than 15% favorables), and the Midwest (where it has only 10% favorable). If this regional divide persists, the conclusion that the Republican Party is a regional party will begin to become part of the conventional wisdom and will add to the problems the Republican Party will have in recovering.

Reihan Salam: There were similar anxieties about Democrats in the wake of the 2002 elections, when it seemed as though the party's base of support was overconcentrated in dense coastal regions. It is certainly true that the South is heavily Republican, and that this creates complications -- as a very distinctive region, it's possibly that a GOP identified with South might turn off voters in other regions.

But it's also true that the south is becoming more like the rest of the country and vice versa. President Obama won Virginia and North Carolina and Florida, states that had been staunchly Republican, in part because of large numbers of migrants from the Northeast and Midwest. And so Republicans in those regions, like Bob McDonnell, have had to adapt to the new environment. Similarly, this population shift may make certain parts of the Northeast and Midwest more open to conservatives -- keep an eye on Pennsylvania and New Hampshire and Michigan.

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Fort Worth, Tex.: Any chance we can get an apology from the GOP for their massive government increase earlier this decade? You'd think a party so rooted in Christianity would practice a little more humility once in awhile. I left the party recently (or rather, it left me), and frankly I see no reason to come back.

One benefit? Saving a bundle on chair cushions, as I'm just sitting on my hands now.

Reihan Salam: There are certainly some Republicans who will apologize for the increase in government spending, and some conservative candidates already have. But there's something a little strange about this -- it's rare that an incumbent will say, "I'm sorry *I* voted for bills X and Y." Rather, they tend to see, "Boy, those other guys made terrible mistakes. I will never make any mistakes ever!"

But will members of the Bush administration apologize for increasing the budget on defense and homeland security and covering prescription drugs for seniors while also cutting taxes? I doubt it. And when you get down to it, that is where the Bush-era deficits came from. There are, of course, some congressional Republicans who now regret backing the Medicare prescription drug entitlement, but not very many.

That's not to say that conservative candidates won't say that the massive government increase is bad. But it would help if they were more specific. Do you want to intend to roll back prescription drug coverage, for example?

So with regards to the idea of an apology, one answer is that talk is cheap.

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NY 23rd Race: Mr. Salam

Can you provide your prospective on the NY 23rd district race? It looks like the 2 GOP candidates are dividing the vote, which may give it to the Dem.

Reihan Salam: Great question! Basically, I think the conservatives backing Doug Hoffman, the Conservative Party candidate, against Republican nominee Dede Scozzafava are calculating that a Democratic victory would be preferable to the election of a Republican who will not vote with the Republican caucus on a variety of key issues, ranging from tax and spending initiatives to labor law. That is, a Scozzafava defeat will "teach Republicans a lesson."

Of course, one can also imagine a scenario in which Hoffman wins the race, just as James Buckley defeated a liberal Democrat and a liberal Republican in his race for the US Senate.

I'm not quite sure what to make of this. I generally think that it's a good thing for the GOP to be a big-tent party, yet I also think that there have to be reasonable limits. Part of the value of having political parties is that they offer a rough guide to voters of what to expect -- sort of a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. And I think Scozzafava needs to convince center-right voters that she is with them on the key issues.

But part of why the national party wanted to run a moderate-to-liberal candidate is that they recognize that Upstate New York, a depressed region, is not hostile to federal aid and federal intervention, and national party is not inclined to simply write off such regions.

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Freising, Germany: A positive way forward has been shown by people like Newt Gingrich and Joe Scarborough, who would like to usher in a new era of environmental stewardship and advocate a conservative embrace of green politics.

But the pressing issue for many people at the moment is still the recession caused by the Banking Meltdown. In the last election, McCain was hurt more by the financial crisis than Obama. Do you think that the Republican Party could ever embrace the thought of prudent government intervention to prevent a repeat of such a crisis?

Reihan Salam: Let's not go too easy on Gingrich and Scarborough. It's easy to say that you support environmental stewardship; it is quite another to devise workable policies that will have a positive impact. I worry that this is a problem among Democrats and Republicans. Among Democrats, there has been an enthusiastic embrace of cap-and-trade and other carbon-pricing measures. The trouble is that constructing politically attractive legislation, they have also included a variety of subsidies and giveaways that dull the economic signals while creating spending initiatives that will be very difficult to reverse, leaving aside the question of whether they'll help us achieve our environmental goals rather than the narrower goal of winning votes in the short-term.

A small handful of Republicans, like Senators Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, really have offered smart and attractive proposals on environmental issues, and I applaud them for it.

With regard to the banking meltdown, I'll give you a short and unhappy answer: I think the answer might be no. A number of conservatives, including Nicole Gelinas of the Manhattan Institute, have emphasized the role that unregulated OTC derivatives played in exacerbating the financial crisis. Yet when the Financial Services Committee voted on a fairly moderate -- and indeed fairly weak -- proposal to tighten regulation of derivatives, only one Republican, Walter Jones of North Carolina (who has dissented on a wide variety of issues beyond financial regulation from the Republican mainstream), voted for it. The legislation was not flawless, but this struck me as very discouraging. My sense, and I hasten to add that I'm not an expert, is that some congressional Republicans have lost the distinction between being pro-market/pro-competition and pro-particular firms.

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San Diego, Calif.: Is it just me, or is Bob McDonnell currently one of the most impressive politicians in the GOP at the moment? He is conservative without being divisive, and seems to be doing quite well among independents. Could his style of campaigning work in other purple states?

Reihan Salam: I've also been very impressed by McDonnell. He's run a shrewd campaign, one that has reached out to nontraditional constituencies for Republican candidates. His focus on the inner suburbs of northern Virginia accounts for much of his success. And that has meant devising substantive -- if not entirely satisfying -- policies on issues like traffic congestion. I definitely think that his style of campaigning can work in other purple states.

I do worry, however, that McDonnell might be falling prey to easy-answerism. Creigh Deeds has received a lot of flack for his obfuscation on taxes to fund transportation. McDonnell has proposed a variety of nontraditional funding mechanisms that might not prove sufficiently robust to make the necessary investments. In this regard, I still think that Mitch Daniels is the best model for Republican gubernatorial candidates.

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Roseland, NJ: What is the takeaway for the party if Chris Christie loses the NJ governor's race?

Reihan Salam: Great question. It is very possible that the 2009 elections will see a kind of split decision, with Corzine barely holding on in New Jersey while Bob McDonnell wins in Virginia. In recent history -- 1993 and 2001 -- the party that lost the White House won both of those races, and this split decision will be seen as a win for the Democrats.

But New Jersey is an unusual case. Chris Daggett was for many years a moderate Republican, and it seems very possible that he's splitting the "change" vote. Also, Christie is in many respects a flawed candidate. Earlier on, he seemed ideal -- he had a sterling reputation as a prosecutor, albeit one that has grown less sterling over time as he's been accused of behaving in highly political fashion.

Corzine is deeply unpopular, yet his enormous financial resources have allowed him to effectively attack Christie and drive up his negatives. New Jersey is between two of the country's most expensive media markets, and self-funding makes a big difference.

Moreover, while Virginia has arguably turned purple, New Jersey is deep blue. There is deep distrust of the Republican brand, and it will take a long time to fix that.

I tend to think that the state and local tax exemption has a big impact on politics in high-tax states. Without it, tax-cutting Republicans might do far better in state and local elections. With it, voters are to some degree insulated.

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Rockville, Md.: I just borrowed Charles Murray's latest book "Real Education" from the library yesterday and have read about half of it. Murray's central thesis is that too many people go to college. His figures are that about 50% of today's seniors will start a four-year program and eventually 35% will graduate. He thinks about 10-15% will enter fields that SHOULD require college.

The others will enter fields in which employers often require a college degree as proof of intellectual ability and discipline, even though the particular knowledge gained is not really necessary.

Given the huge drain that college debt is having on today's young adult generation, do you see any possible revolt against the assumption of college getting support from political conservatism and its business allies?

Reihan Salam: Murray's ideas on higher education are controversial, as you can imagine. But I think he makes a number of excellent points, among them that a college degree might represent an inefficient signaling mechanism.

Consider that employers value high school diplomas far more than GEDs. Why? In part because a diploma represents the attainment of noncognitive skills -- the ability to see something through, to wake up and show up to class on time, an ability to take direction, etc. -- that employers value.

Leaving college education aside, the US dropout rate remains distressingly high, particularly among Latino students and male students of all ethnic groups. That should be low-hanging fruit -- regardless of how one feels about college, something has to be done about this, and one strategy is to emphasize apprenticeship and other efforts to incorporate aspects of paid employment into education.

And I definitely think that conservatives are keenly interested in alternatives to the reigning models of higher education. There's a wonderful article in the Washington Monthly on a distance education company called StraighterLine.com that has threatened traditional models -- and that has offered tremendous educational value.

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Seattle, Wash.: In the '80s the Democrats had a cluster of Southern and Midwestern officials like Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Sam Nunn, and Dick Gephardt that formed the DLC. Other than Olympia Snowe there just doesn't seem to be anyone willing to embrace an alternative to the current no-new-taxes, no-regulation-of-anything, no-more-government-intervention anywhere mantra. So how does the Republican party move from its current state to whatever alternative you envision?

Reihan Salam: The DLC only emerged after the disastrous defeat of 1984. The 1980 defeat wasn't enough -- many believed that Carter's defeat was a fluke that had more to do with events beyond the control of the Democratic White House than any deeper shift in the electorate. The short answer to your question is that a massive 2012 defeat might be the event that precipitates a shift in Republican strategy, or rather the emergence of a successful wing of reformers.

I should add, however, that I don't think that these reformers will resemble Olympia Snowe.

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St. Paul, MN...: I see that Rush is blaming liberals for "ruining his dream of owning the Rams."

It's odd. For a party that preaches responsibility, it is amusing how they fail to practice it themselves. Rush's political discourse is NOT the reason. He has called the President of the United States a "Halfrican." He sung the offensive "Magic Negro" song. He made fun with great malice of Michael J. Fox who has a debilitating illness. Rush needs to look inward and like he himself says stop blaming others for his own failings. But Rush is typical of today's conservatism and that is exactly why it is failing. When conservatism only appeals to racists, it needs to examine itself. Thank you for listening.

Reihan Salam: I recommend sending this question to Rush.

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Florida Chick: The theft of my Florida Democratic primary vote by Howard Dean and company at the nefarious Memorial Day meeting was enough to shove me away from my party since my first vote, in 1980, for Jimmy Carter. Palin did not draw me to the GOP but the better treatment of women did. The Dems are a boyz klub. Hillary supporter and donor for - the GOP. Hope you're glad to have me.

Reihan Salam: The key question is about your political priorities -- if you backed Hillary Clinton because you saw her as the champion of an expanded welfare state, my guess is that the Democrats will be a better fit. But if you supported her because, for example, you believe that the U.S. should pursue a counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan or that we maintain a skeptical stance towards Iran, the Republicans might be a better fit.

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Bowie, Md.: There's a column by Catholic advocate Bill Donohue in OnFaith that has generated quite a lot of responses. The gist of it is that secularism is bankrupting our culture. I agree that something is bankrupting our culture, but I don't think its secularism.

Being one myself, I'm often left feeling empty at how seldom I hear secularists advocating conservatism or vice-versa. Are there any important and explicitly secular opinion pundits?

washingtonpost.com: America's secular saboteurs

Reihan Salam: There are many of them, including Heather MacDonald, John Derbyshire, and Razib Khan, among others. I get the impression that the number is growing over time, and that strikes me as a good thing.

It is also true, however, that secular conservatives have tended to drift away from the Republican Party over the last twenty years as evangelical conservatives have taken on a more prominent and public role. This has to do with very complicated social dynamics -- who we associate with in intimate life, who are our friends and neighbors, etc. One of the most powerful human tendencies is to become more like our friends and co-workers over time -- this is one reason why southern Democrats tend to be more conservative than Democrats living in the District of Columbia.

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Boston: Just a quick note of thanks for changing the title. Maybe there is a future for some degree of compromise and bi-partisanship...or at least a little less hostility!

Reihan Salam: Thanks Boston. We do our best.

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Arlington, Va.: Not so long ago I was one of the coveted demographic of mid 20s registered independent voters. I am in my 30s now, and still registered independent. I voted for Obama (though I am not overly impressed thus far with the administration).

I have to be honest, my perception of the GOP is not a flattering one. To me, I see it mainly as the party of anger and parochial thought. The recent comments by Merwin and Ulmer, to me, are indicative of the GOP in the South and only strengthen my view of the GOP.

Financially I tend to agree with the GOP, but on account of their social stances and their chosen leaders, I cannot see myself supporting them. And apparently I am not alone, as a recent poll suggests that only 19% of the electorate are self-identified republicans.

How does the GOP move forward without splintering with the hard liners?

Reihan Salam: I think it's important to step back a little -- many people who oppose same-sex marriage don't think of themselves as hard-liners. Rather, they think of themselves as upholding views that were very common as recently as twenty or even ten years ago, and they believe that it is people on the other side who are the hard-liners. This doesn't mean that they are right, but it does account for why we tend to talk past each other on this and other issues.

And as the country grows more favorable towards gay rights, there will still be a minority of voters, concentrated in a few regions, who reject this consensus. In our system of government, they will be entitled to elect legislators who reflect their views. So deep disagreement will be around for many, many years to come, and I can't really see all political elites deciding to write off these voters.

My take is that Republicans would be better-served by taking a page from Bob McDonnell and emphasizing a jobs and growth agenda over contentious social issues. But that doesn't really address the fact that deep disagreement on these issues will persist all the same.

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Reihan Salam: Thanks so much for your questions, everyone. I wasn't able to get to everyone, but hopefully next time.

I'll just note that Britain's Centre for Social Justice is doing tremendous work on fighting poverty -- definitely worth a look.

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