After Obama: Are you a Republican or a conservative?

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Reihan Salam
New America Foundation Fellow
Wednesday, October 28, 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: Hello my friends! We have a lot to talk about, including NY-23 and, if you're interested, Bill Kristol's provocative Post column from Tuesday.

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Washington, DC: Good Lord, what the h-e-double hockey sticks is going on? The conservative candidate (who doesn't even live in the district) doesn't concern himself with "parochial issues." The Republican candidate, who was endorsed by the NRA, called the cops on a reporter who asked tough questions. What will the Democrat do to blow this easy pickup -- be involved in cow tipping?

Reihan Salam: As you know, elections are decided on the basis of moods as much as issues. And a special election will likely attract an even narrower slice of the electorate than you're likely to get during a midterm election. I can easily imagine the Democratic candidate falling short and Hoffman pulling off a narrow upset.

I actually have some sympathy for Hoffman with regards to his lack of detailed knowledge concerning local transportation projects, etc. Conservatives have been very disappointed with what they see as Republican hypocrisy on domestic discretionary spending: the same candidates who pledge to cut government are often the first to demand special favors for their districts. So perhaps Hoffman's lack of interest in these projects reflects his ideological opposition to special pleading. Upstate New York is arguably too dependent on assistance from the state and federal governments.

Somehow I don't think this argument will prove very convincing with voters in the district in a presidential year. If Hoffman does manage to get elected, it'll be worth keeping an eye on how committed he is to not fighting for Upstate New York's parochial interests.

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Wash Post Poll: Can you comment on the recent Wash Post poll indicating that only 19% considered themselves Republicans? I've seen a CNN poll that was consistent with this finding. Thank you.

washingtonpost.com: Morning Fix: A premature celebration for the GOP (The Fix, Oct. 20)

Reihan Salam: There is no getting around the fact that those numbers are dismal. It could be that the public is simply in an anti-Washington mood. I've often gotten the same that anti-Obama sentiment isn't conservative so much as it reflects a deepening cynicism about the White House's ability to take on powerful economic interests. That is, the anti-Obama sentiment comes at least as much from the populist left as from the populist right.

If Republicans are going to succeed, they have to find a way of tapping into this sentiment by, for example, backing tough regulation of the financial sector. Interestingly, this path is advocated by many conservative and libertarian thinkers, like Nicole Gelinas and Luigi Zingales and Amar Bhide. To oversimplify, they argue that free markets depend on a reliable and transparent regulatory framework, and that we've undermined this with our bailout-driven approach that arguably began in the mid-1980s.

Conservatives have been cheered by another poll that Bill Kristol cited on Tuesday:

"The Gallup poll released Monday shows the public's conservatism at a high-water mark. Some 40 percent of Americans call themselves conservative, compared with 36 percent who self-describe as moderates and 20 percent as liberals."

It's hard to know what the upshot of this is: one assumes that there is a large number of independent voters who now identify as conservatives, which bodes well. Yet we also don't know exactly what voters mean when they call themselves conservatives -- there is a wide range of opinion. A survey from early this year found that about half of self-identified conservatives favored rolling back the Bush tax cuts.

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Minneapolis, Minn.: We're going to end 2009 with about 1 million fewer private sector jobs, a higher poverty rate, and lower real median incomes than we had in 2000. A dismal decade for most American families.

The economic performance this decade was largely driven by decisions made by a Republican President and Congress. And even if one takes away 9/11 and the financial meltdown, the recovery in-between was by most measures the weakest in the post-WW2 period.

If one thinks that Barack Obama and Congressional Democrats don't have the right economic answers, where's the new strategy from Republicans to convince people that they've seen the light? Doesn't economic policy need to involve more than just calls for tax cuts?

Reihan Salam: Hello Minneapolis. You raise an excellent point: the last decade has indeed been very disappointing in terms of growth in household incomes, let alone the devastating consequences of the housing bust.

To start, I absolutely agree that a conservative economic strategy has to move beyond tax cuts. But I also don't think that there is any *other* silver bullet. The US economy will have to go through a painful period of deleveraging. Worse than that, the half of households that we think of as middle class will have to go through a *particularly* painful period of deleveraging, as these families have the highest ratio of debt to disposable income. And these middle class Americans vote.

As a result, I'm guessing that the next decade will be a very volatile time in our politics.

With regards to the question of responsibility for the economic meltdown, I fear that there is a lot of blame to go around.

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Boston: Mr. Salam,

I've been reading your posts, and you seem to be much less hostile than pretty much any elected official. Does the way this party has opposed anything President Obama proposes risk alienating everyone but the extreme right base?

Reihan Salam: It's hard to say. I think that Bill Kristol is right to suggest that the Republican Congressional minority has very little scope to influence the legislative process. It's true that Susan Collins now has outsized influence by virtue of her willingness to sign on to Democratic health reform legislation. Yet I'm not so sure a compromise that would garner the support of half a dozen or a dozen Republican senators would also secure enough Democratic votes to pass. Given that, there is a strong case for offering a bright line between Democratic and Republican policies.

To share my personal thoughts, I think that the debate over health reform has been very dispiriting: I think that the White House and Congressional Democrats haven't been subject to adequate scrutiny by leading media organizations, and so the job has been left to conservatives to point out serious flaws. But conservatives haven't always done the best job of differentiating between their gut-level ideological objections and objections that might resonate with moderate voters, thus giving the (false) impression that they are uninterested in improving the way our health system works. This leaves opponents of the Democratic health reform effort with few options.

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Wye River, Md.: Here on Maryland's Eastern Shore, we rid ourselves of liberal Congressman Wayne Gilchrest in the Republican primary only to lose the seat to a moderate Democrat, Frank Kratovil, due to massive Obama coattails. Gilchrest was not only to the far left in his party, he was to the left of the majority of his conservative district(Gilchrest was, in fact, an accidental congressman elected due to the multi-scandals of Congressman Roy Dyson). Doesn't it make sense for Republicans to run conservatives in conservative districts?

Reihan Salam: I think it does make sense for Republicans to run conservatives in conservative districts. I also think that efforts to parachute in candidates selected by the party leadership tend to backfire.

NY-23, however, is an interesting case. Some argued that the president nominated John McHugh to serve as Secretary of the Army because his political advisors believed that McHugh's district was ripe for a Democratic takeover. So it makes sense that Republicans would seek out a candidate who fit the increasingly purple district. The question is whether they went too far by selecting a candidate with strong ties to organized labor, etc.

I think it's clearly right that candidates should fit their districts -- yet it stands to reason that there should be some limits. For example, Republicans could nominate a radical pacifist who is devoutly committed to European-style social democracy to run against Barbara Lee in the liberal California congressional district centered on Berkeley and Oakland on the grounds that the candidate "fits the district," but in what sense would this candidate be part of the Republican team?

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Bob McDonnell: I've been reading your columns and enjoy them.

Perhaps I'm incorrect, but I've made the assumption that you are Muslim, or are at least concerned with affairs that affect the Muslim community. Would you care to comment on the prominence, both financial and face-time, of somebody who holds such an extreme view of Muslims in America and his connection with the Republican party?

McDonnell Takes $20,000 From Funder of Anti-Muslim Movie "Obsession" (Blue Virginia, Oct. 27)

Reihan Salam: I haven't seen the film in question. I am, however, familiar with Sheldon Adelson, and my sense is that he is a conservative who is critical of organized labor and strongly supportive of a forward-leaning American foreign policy, and a staunch supporter of the U.S. alliance with the State of Israel. These all strike me as fairly unobjectionable views.

The blog post you sent me links to an article that states the following:

"Critics allege that the movie 'Obsession' is 'hate propaganda' which paints Muslims as violent extremists and, among other things, explicitly compares the threat posed by radical Islam to that of Nazi Germany in the 1930s."

This strikes me as a pretty slippery characterization. Does the film paint *all* Muslims as violent extremists? I find that unlikely. Is it reasonable to suggest that the threat posed by radical Islam is comparable to that posed by Nazi Germany in the 1930s? Well, Germany was one of the world's most powerful and advanced states. But I think you'll find that victims of the Iranian regime and victims of the Taliban, as well as women across the world who've been subject to extreme interpretations of sharia law will not find that to be an entirely unreasonable characterization. There is a family resemblance between the fascism that flourished in Europe during the 1930s and 1940s and the militant Islamism championed by Al Qaeda.

To be sure, political Islam is a complex movement, and it includes moderates who bear resemblance to Europe's Christian Democratic parties. But noting that there are dangerous and extreme tendencies on the fringes of Muslim politics doesn't strike me as *intrinsically* offensive. Indeed, I think you'll find that many Muslim immigrants in the United States left their native countries because they were troubled by intolerance and xenophobia far more potent than anything the folks at Blue Virginia have in mind.

I won't suggest that Blue Virginia is trivializing these issues. I do think, however, that Adelson's views (as I understand them) are well within the bounds of what is reasonable.

As for Muslims in America, my guess is that Adelson would agree that this is a community that has proven fairly successfully in embracing the norms of the wider American community. The anxiety is about an extremist minority. The recent arrest of a group of young Americans who sought terrorist training in Pakistan's borderlands from Al Qaeda central suggests that this isn't a concern we should easily dismiss. I think you'll find that Muslim Americans care about this issue as much as other Americans.

Granted, there are other Muslim Americans who are more concerned by what they see as a rising climate of intolerance. Among devout evangelicals, for example, there is a not uncommon belief that Islam is a problematic religion, and that even putatively moderate adherents represent a danger. I don't think that this is true.

And the fact that Bob McDonnell has campaigned for the votes of Muslims and Arab Americans suggests that he doesn't think it's true either.

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Mount Prospect, Ill.: I really believe that in order for the GOP to revitalize it must marginalize the right wing of its party, much as the Democrats have with its liberal wing. They need an influx not only of moderates, but also intellectuals who can add ideas to the party. Sadly, this has been a growing problem for the GOP and, I believe, it has now reached a critical point. If this party is to survive (which it needs to) it is going to have to come to grips with the fact that the era of social conservatism is over and that not finding common ground with one's ideological opposites is harmful to the nation. Even the patriots and fathers of our country were able to compromise and admit when their ideas were, frankly, out of favor. I foresee the "Tea Party" crowd along with S. Palin possibly forming their own third party for 2012, which, while it may cost the GOP the White House, would prove to be an excellent time to clean house and get the party back on track.

Reihan Salam: Is it fair to say that Democrats have marginalized their liberal wing? I guess it depends on what we mean by "liberal wing." The persistence of the public option, championed as a moderate alternative to single-payer by policy thinkers connected to the labor movement, suggests that the liberal wing is alive and well. Congressional Democrats are far more liberal now than they were through the 1980s and 1990s, when the caucus included a large number of southern and western Democrats with conservative views on a wide range of issues. Now, in contrast, Democrats from the north and the south tend to agree on a wide range of economic issues. The Blue Dog Caucus is well to the left of the old Boll Weevil Democrats.

As a matter of style, it is certainly true that Democrats have gone for a more pragmatic tone, and conservative Republicans are striving to do the same thing, albeit with some difficulty in light of the strength and prominence of the staunchly conservative grassroots.

It's also worth noting that because there are more self-identified conservatives than liberals in the electorate, the vast majority of Republicans are self-identified conservatives whereas the Democrats have a more even split between self-identified liberals and moderates.

I don't think a third party is very likely. And if it did happen, the Republicans would struggle to reabsorb the movement if it did indeed cost them election. We'd be back to square one pretty quickly.

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Re: "but in what sense would this candidate be part of the Republican team?": Well, let's see now. They'd vote for Republican leadership, Republican committee chairs, and probably 60-70% of the Republican legislation if they had run as a Republican candidate. Obviously they had some identification with the party or they wouldn't have run. Sometimes I think Republican "purity" is a Democrat ploy to keep Democrats in power indefinitely.

Reihan Salam: In my answer to that question, I tried to convey that there is a spectrum -- the scenario you outline would apply to many moderate Republicans. But would it really apply to the hypothetical socialist-pacifist candidate I mentioned? If we were talking about an extremely narrow Republican majority, could the socialist-pacifist be counted on to vote to authorize a military intervention, to pass a large defense appropriations bill, or Health Savings Accounts and a cut in the corporate income tax? I doubt it.

I'm certainly not suggesting that Dede Scozzafava is *that* far outside the Republican mainstream. There is considerable ambiguity whenever you're dealing with a candidate. The plausible objection that Hoffman and his allies have raised is that the NRCC could spend large sums electing Scozzafava, and yet she might switch to the Democrats to avoid a contentious Republican primary in 2010.

I definitely think that Republicans should allow for more candidates who would, as you describe, back roughly 60-70 percent of Republican legislation. There are other scenarios, however.

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Leesburg, Va.: "This strikes me as a pretty slippery characterization. Does the film paint -all- Muslims as violent extremists? I find that unlikely."

Ummm...where do you live? This is a commonly held view among the Christian Right. Even if you can get them to acknowledge that not all Muslims are radical, they will counter with "Then why don't the so-called 'Moderate Muslims' do more to decry the actions of the Radicals?"

You realize that a large percentage of your political party would be uneasy with you sitting next to them in an airplane, right?

Reihan Salam: A couple of things: I also think many Democrats and independents would be uncomfortable sitting next to me on an airplane. As you might know, many Democrats are devout religious believers, and some are suspicious of immigrants and children of immigrants with unfamiliar beliefs. Not all Democrats are cosmopolitan city-dwellers who are enthusiastic about cultural and religious diversity.

More broadly, I'm not all that interested in who is or isn't comfortable sitting next to me on an airplane. I am, however, interested in questions of public policy. Members of the Christian Right tend to be very supportive of school choice and other measures that are embraced by religious minorities of all stripes, ranging from Hutterites and and Mennonites and Hasids and devout Muslims. Suffice it to say, members of these radically different communities aren't always going to warmly embrace each other -- but that's not really the point.

There are people who conceive of politics as a struggle between People Like Them and People Like Us over recognition: which is the right and appropriate way of life, am I getting the respect I deserve, etc. This is a perfectly natural way of seeing the world. I'm deeply skeptical as to whether we can resolve these questions through politics.

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Princeton, NJ: I notice that your objection to the conservative positions on health care is purely political.. "But conservatives haven't always done the best job of differentiating between their gut-level ideological objections and objections that might resonate with moderate voters"

Don't you think you might object to the lies spread by your friends? Don't you think that the discussion should be based on data and statistics, not ideology or politics?

Reihan Salam: Interesting. Well, this is a political discussion, so you're right, my answer did focus on politics.

As for lies, I like to think that my friends aren't lying. But I'll agree that I've heard a lot of distortions from my liberal friends. I think that these distortions are rooted in a deep desire to support a public policy they consider good and noble, so I'm not inclined to demonize them for claiming that CBO numbers give a remotely accurate picture of what the most recent Senate proposal is likely to cost. The CBO, as you might know, is not supposed to factor in macroeconomic effects -- e.g., what effect the implicit marginal tax rates created by varying levels of subsidy will have on employment levels. Moreover, the CBO is not supposed to engage in political conjecture regarding the (very) likely impact of subsidy levels that different dramatically on one side of the exchange firewall from the other.

I'm guessing that you are referring to the distortions spread by my *conservative* friends and not my liberal friends. I certainly object to those distortions. But I'm afraid that liberal distortions are proving more consequential, as they are more widely embraced.

Good luck with your anger! And read some of my columns and blog posts on healthcare -- I think you'll find that they include a lot of sober analysis.

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Dunn Loring, Va.: Mr. Salam,

How can Republicans tell me that a Public Option is bad because it is "Socialism," while simultaneously telling me that Medicare is good? Isn't Medicare Socialism?

The message I'm getting is that the GOP supports social programs that buy off reliable voting blocks, which Old people certainly are, and opposes social programs that buy off unreliable voting blocks like the working poor.

Reihan Salam: This is an excellent point. I don't disagree with you in the slightest.

One could argue that because Medicare has existed for a long time, it has become part of settled expectations. But that doesn't strike me as much of an excuse.

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Health Care Reform: "inadequate scrutiny by leading media organizations?"

Oh come on. You're playing the "liberal media" card? Will we ever be able to put this one to rest?

Example: You, right now! You're hosting a weekly chat on the website of the paper most often held up as a "typical lefty rag." You've referred several times now to a column written by King of the NeoConservatives, Bill Kristol, in the very same "lefty rag."

Perhaps if Republicans spent less energy criticising the health care bills for imaginary things like "Death Panels," they would have more time to criticize the bills for flaws that actually exist in them.

Reihan Salam: I tried to make a nuanced point. I don't think that the issue is the "liberal media" at all. Rather, I think it's a matter of some journalists taking claims at face value that they should not -- this happens on the left, the right, and the center.

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Reihan Salam: Thanks very much, guys! It was a pleasure as always. Very eager to do this again next week, when I will be out of the country but still plugged in.

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