Opinion

Reihan Salam

A prophetic President Bush

Reihan Salam
Apr 26, 2013 20:59 UTC

This week, various political luminaries gathered in Dallas, Texas, to celebrate the presidency of George W. Bush, who presided over one of the most tumultuous periods in modern American history. Among liberals, Bush is considered a uniquely awful president, having led the United States into the ill-fated invasion and occupation of Iraq and having passed into law deep tax cuts that contributed to America’s present-day fiscal crunch.

Conservatives are more conflicted. Some dismiss him as a big-government conservative who failed to heed the wisdom of Goldwater and Reagan. Others, including many who served in the Bush administration, believe that as time passes, he will be lauded for his achievements. The complicated truth is that for all his flaws, George W. Bush had a better understanding of the challenges facing Republicans than most Obama-era conservatives. His rocky tenure is best understood as a testament to how difficult it will be to modernize the GOP.

Many hero-worshipped Bush during the early days of the war on terror, seeing him as a humble Christian leader who was always willing to take the hard road rather than the easy one. But as the public turned against the Iraq War, and as his efforts on behalf of Social Security reform and immigration reform engendered a fierce political backlash, a growing number of conservatives came to see Bush as an apostate who expanded Medicare and the federal role in education while failing to roll back the growth of government. The Bush administration’s response to the 2008 financial crisis alienated conservatives even further, as the ominously named Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), engineered by Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, struck many as a hardly-any-strings-attached Wall Street bailout. The Tea Party movement arose in no small part as a repudiation of Bush and his fitful efforts to transform the GOP.

Bush administration veterans, meanwhile, remain convinced that their president has gotten a bum rap. Keith Hennessey, who served as director of the National Economic Council during Bush’s second term, recently described Bush’s keen intelligence, and in doing so worked the former president’s liberal detractors into a frenzy. Among my friends and acquaintances who served in the Bush White House, the general view is that while Bush had solidly conservative instincts on domestic policy matters, he was hemmed in by the demands of the war on terror and the recalcitrance of Republican lawmakers. When the administration pressed for reform of Medicaid and, later on, changes in the way employer-sponsored health insurance would be treated in the tax code, congressional Republicans hardly ever gave him in inch. President Bush had little leverage, as he needed congressional Republicans to approve military spending and to defend his administration in the endless controversies over enemy combatants and surveillance that sapped its strength.

One of the ironies of the Bush presidency is that for all its failures, it was rooted in a clear-eyed diagnosis of the challenges facing Republicans. The end of the Cold War and the success of the Clinton-era Democrats’ centrism had badly undermined the GOP, which by the late 1990s risked irrelevance. Newt Gingrich’s efforts to shrink government were successfully countered by President Bill Clinton’s protean progressive centrism, and so George W. Bush, as governor of Texas, identified an alternative way forward.

Boston and the future of Islam in America

Reihan Salam
Apr 22, 2013 19:19 UTC

One of the central questions surrounding the Boston Marathon bombings is whether they portend a larger wave of terror attacks by homegrown Islamic radicals. The culprits, two brothers of Chechen origin, one of whom was a naturalized U.S. citizen, had both lived in the country for more than a decade. While the older brother is reported to have been sullen, resentful and ill at ease in his adopted country, the younger brother was by all accounts a well-mannered kid, whose main vice was marijuana. Many fear that if these two men could turn viciously against the country that gave them refuge, the same might be true of at least some small number of their co-religionists.

I grew up in a Muslim household in New York City’s polyglot outer boroughs, and the Tsarnaev brothers strike me, in broad outline, as recognizable figures. The younger brother’s Twitter feed, which has attracted wide attention, reads like dispatches from the collective id of at least a quarter of my high school classmates. Also recognizable is the brothers’ lower-middle-class but gentrifying Cambridge milieu, which bears a strong resemblance to the neighborhood in which I was raised. So like many Americans of Muslim origin, I’ve been struggling to understand what exactly went wrong in their heads. How could a “douchebag” and a “stoner” ‑ and here I’m paraphrasing the words of the Tsarnaev brothers’ acquaintances and friends ‑ have committed one of the most gruesome terror attacks in modern American history? We might never have a good answer to this question, and certainly won’t have a good answer anytime soon. But what we can do is get a sense of what we do and don’t know about U.S. Muslims, and what it might mean for our future.

Although I can’t claim to be representative of U.S. Muslims as a whole, my experience leads me to believe that America’s Muslim community will grow more secular over time. My parents are originally from Bangladesh, a Muslim-majority country of 150 million that is currently in the throes of a violent clash over the role of Islam in public life. While Bangladesh has made impressive strides in a number of social indicators in recent decades, its poverty has sent large numbers of migrants to India, the Persian Gulf, Europe, Southeast Asia and, over the past two decades in particular, the United States.

Can our mayoral candidates tackle the most urgent city issues?

Reihan Salam
Apr 15, 2013 15:24 UTC

Less than two years after resigning from Congress under less than ideal circumstances, Anthony Weiner is reportedly giving serious consideration to running for mayor of New York City. During his first bid for the Democratic mayoral nomination in 2005, Weiner distinguished himself as a voice for middle-income outer borough voters who felt left out of Michael Bloomberg’s Manhattan-centric vision for the city’s future. To some, Weiner seemed like a younger, scrawnier Ed Koch, with the same bulldog tenacity and populist brio. Having graciously conceded defeat that year in the name of Democratic unity, many believed Weiner had a strong shot at winning the mayoralty once Bloomberg left the picture. Then, of course, he was caught sending creepy photographs of himself to various young female strangers, and then lying about it to the press.

So why, one might ask, is Weiner being taken seriously as a potential mayoral candidate? One reason is that he has $4.3 million in campaign funds, and he is entitled to an additional $1.5 million in public matching funds under New York City’s generous campaign finance system. The bigger and more depressing reason is that the leading Democratic mayoral candidates are hilariously ill-equipped to face the fiscal challenges to come, and voters are very open to someone new.

There are  some solid candidates in the mix, but they’re not running as Democrats. Joe Lhota, the former MTA chief who served as Rudolph Giuliani’s right-hand man throughout the 1990s, has a wealth of administrative experience that would serve him well. Adolfo Carrión Jr., the Independence Party nominee and former Bronx borough president, is running on an innovative platform centered on revitalizing New York City’s neglected outer boroughs. But short of a miracle or a Bloomberg-level injection of super PAC money, it will be hard for either candidate to overcome the fact that they aren’t Democrats.

Why is immigration reform taking so long?

Reihan Salam
Apr 4, 2013 19:32 UTC

You’d think comprehensive immigration reform legislation would be a done deal. President Barack Obama has promised to overhaul immigration policy since his 2008 campaign, and leading Republicans have been keen to do the same in the wake of the last presidential election. Last week the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO, representing the interests of Corporate America and organized labor, respectively, endorsed a series of reform proposals, including a substantial increase in work visas and labor-friendly prevailing wage requirements. A bipartisan group of eight senators has been working toward a deal, and a bipartisan group of eight House members is also in on the act. So what’s the holdup?

The basic problem is beautifully illustrated by two little controversies, one sparked by liberals and the other by conservatives. On the left, there is a widely held belief that U.S. immigration laws are far too stringent, and that we’re not doing enough to help low-income immigrants become citizens. On the right, there is an equally common conviction that U.S. immigration laws should not, as a general rule, have the effect of expanding the number of people who depend on means-tested government benefits to maintain a decent standard of living.

In a recent New York Times op-ed piece, Rahm Emanuel, the blustery mayor of Chicago and Obama’s former chief of staff, and Luis V. Gutierrez, an Illinois congressman who represents a large share of Chicago’s Latino population, argue that, in order to apply for citizenship, Citizenship and Immigration Services is charging immigrants too steep a price – $680, including a fee for fingerprinting. Emanuel and Gutierrez observe that as the fee has increased over the past decade the number of lawful permanent residents who apply for citizenship has declined. They neglect the possibility that other factors could be at play.

Waiting on the world to change

Reihan Salam
Apr 1, 2013 17:00 UTC

As the Supreme Court weighed arguments over California’s Proposition 8 and the federal Defense of Marriage Act last week, the cultural and political momentum in favor of same-sex civil marriage was extraordinary. One after another, prominent Democrats who had been reluctant to endorse same-sex civil marriage switched their positions, recognizing that they were in grave danger of being “on the wrong side of history” (a phrase we’re hearing a lot lately). Some of the reversals have been surprising only because they’ve come so late, as in the case of Hillary Clinton. Others, like Senators Jon Tester and Kay Hagan, were surprising because they represent states, Montana and North Carolina, where same-sex unions aren’t recognized.

But this rush among politicians, including a small but growing number of Republicans, to back same-sex civil marriage won’t settle the issue. Assuming the Supreme Court doesn’t decide to invalidate the laws of the 37 states that limit civil marriage to opposite-sex couples, 31 of which have constitutional amendments to that effect, this debate will go on for many years. And we’re already starting to see the contours of what comes next ‑ a battle between those fighting to return cultural values to what they were before the sexual revolution, and those convinced that there is no turning back.

A number of conservatives, myself included, have argued that the right needs to shift from opposing same-sex civil marriage to focusing on the broader erosion of marriage, particularly among working- and middle-class Americans. Over the past half-century the share of 18- to 29-year-olds who are married has fallen from 60 percent to 20 percent. This wouldn’t be much of a problem if young adults were delaying child-rearing until after marriage, as is true among college-educated Americans. But the out-of-wedlock birthrate now stands at 41 percent. By changing the subject from fighting same-sex civil marriage to strengthening marriage for all families, conservatives who believe that stable marriages are crucial for child-rearing and economic advancement can form alliances across the political and cultural spectrum. Although this argument has gained at least some currency among younger conservatives, who’ve been raised in a culture that takes gay equality as a given, it is far from becoming the conservative conventional wisdom. If anything, opponents of same-sex civil marriage see this “call for a truce” as a reflection of a basic misunderstanding about the real meaning of marriage.

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