As a Republican former Indianapolis mayor and district attorney, and someone who helped design the “compassionate conservatism” platform that was a hallmark of George W. Bush’s presidency, I lament that the party has abandoned its focus on identifying the United States’ ills and finding solutions that work for everyone. Addressing systemic racism, police brutality and social inequities is vital to the nation’s health and ethical standing, and yet on those subjects too many Republicans have been largely silent.
No wonder the GOP has virtually disappeared from most major U.S. cities, and no wonder the 2018 midterms revealed the party’s collapsing support in the suburbs. If my fellow Republicans and I are to reclaim our legitimacy as a national party, we must move away from the vitriol aimed at cities and show to Americans in urban and suburban areas that we are once more capable of governing with inclusivity, realism and pragmatism. Those should be the hallmarks of a post-Trump Republican Party.
Bush’s compassionate conservatism took such an approach. It was also evident during his father’s presidency after the 1992 Los Angeles riots, when President George H.W. Bush called mayors together to meet with his secretary of housing and urban development, Jack Kemp, to improve urban policy. A remade GOP should offer a compassionate compact to the American public.
The first challenge: showing national Republican officeholders why they should care. After all, few of them represent urban areas, and their voters are unlikely to personally interact with those living in poorer city neighborhoods and truly understand their challenges. I saw a microcosm of this phenomenon shortly after becoming mayor. At an inner-city community center, residents told me how they shielded their infants in bathtubs to protect them from nightly random shots fired. The very next week, a community group in a wealthier part of the city complained about the quality of landscaping along city roads.
While the political argument against writing off urban support ought to be reason enough, Republicans must not ignore the moral imperative to address this reality: Achieving the American dream is not remotely possible for many of our fellow citizens. Republicans take pride in laying a foundation for opportunity, and in turn campaign against redistributive government polices. To open opportunities for more Americans, the foundations of opportunity must be made much fairer — and the effects of systemic racism in holding back too many Americans must be recognized.
Unapologetically standing strong against the destruction and anarchy of violent protests neither precludes supporting peaceful protests nor does it prevent addressing abuses in the justice system. Even though the GOP is substantially more conservative than it was 10 or 20 years ago, the party still can reject the false choices that too often flow from a polarized society.
In broad strokes, a post-Trump Republican agenda would recognize the role of government in leveling the playing field, while emphasizing the importance of delivering aid in a way that supports jobs and nourishes community groups, including those that are faith-based. A particularly urgent need: funding for K-12 schools while supporting policies that promote teaching performance and excellence, with the aim of overcoming — to echo a George W. Bush expression — the soft bias of low expectations.
The novel coronavirus hasn’t just disproportionately attacked poor and minority communities; it has also shined a light on existing disparities: the dire effects on health, education and behavior that can result simply from growing up in a neighborhood where opportunity has been crushed.
No amount of force will hold a city together without underlying bonds of social capital. Those bonds are difficult to maintain in neglected neighborhoods with inadequate transit, parks and schools. Republicans have for too long been in denial about this reality. A GOP compassionate compact would finally recognize that the United States will reach its full potential only when it rights imbalances in schools, child care, land use, public health and housing.
The compassionate conservatism many of us advanced two decades ago was not one that advocated the withdrawal of the obligations of the state; it cautioned that government programs should support and not displace local residents and institutions.
If Trump is defeated in November, the Republican Party’s leadership will likely embark on a round of soul-searching, much as it did after Mitt Romney’s loss in 2012. A path forward should include the explicit rejection of racially charged rhetoric while articulating a plan to make the American dream achievable for voters and communities across the entire country.