Opinion

Reihan Salam

To win votes, the GOP should focus on jobs, not immigration

Reihan Salam
Jan 31, 2014 19:01 UTC

One of the most curious political developments in recent memory is House Speaker John Boehner’s decision to press for a new Republican immigration bill before addressing America’s bona fide jobs crisis. Immigration reform is important. Many conservatives are convinced that unless the GOP deals with the challenges facing unauthorized immigrants who have been living and working in the country for years, it will never build trust with voters with strong ties to immigrant communities. This is no small thing in a country in which 13 percent of the population is foreign-born and another 11 percent of the population has at least one foreign-born parent.

But it’s not at all clear that passing an immigration bill will suddenly lead immigrant voters and their children to flock to the GOP, not least because it is all but guaranteed that Democrats will attack the GOP for not going far enough. If Republicans offer unauthorized immigrants legal status without citizenship, Democrats will accuse them of creating millions of second-class non-citizens. And if, as seems likely, Boehner’s immigration push will lead to a substantial increase in less-skilled immigration, it will divide the right, and for good reason.

If Republicans want to build trust with voters — foreign-born and otherwise — they ought to instead pass a serious jobs bill. In his State of the Union address, President Obama made it clear that he will use raising the federal minimum wage as a wedge issue to put GOP lawmakers on the back foot, and there is at least some reason to believe that he will succeed. A Gallup survey from late last year found that 58 percent of Republicans favored a substantial minimum wage hike, a fact that has greatly complicated conservative efforts to beat back a policy they fear will dampen future job growth. The perfect populist issue has fallen into the president’s lap, and a GOP immigration reform push will do nothing to dull its effectiveness.

The president and his allies are also stepping up the pressure on extending long-term unemployment benefits. House Republicans insist that they are open to the idea of an extension if the extension is paid for through future budget cuts. That nuance has been lost as Democrats campaign on GOP indifference to the fate of jobless Americans. The irony is not lost on conservatives who believe, and are right to believe, that the Obama administration is at least partly responsible for the plight of the long-term unemployed.

The overall number of unemployed workers in the U.S. is 10.4 million. Though some share of this unemployment is frictional — the inevitable to-ing and fro-ing of workers that you’ll see in even the healthiest economic environment — much of it is not. Across the country, there are 3.8 million Americans who have been unemployed for 27 weeks or longer. Though this number has declined since December of last year, when it was 4.7 million, it remains scandalously high. And the ravages of long-term unemployment ripple out beyond the 3.8 million or so who are directly impacted, to their extended families and even their neighbors. Democrats are increasingly turning to legalistic maneuvers to address this problem. Apart from extending long-term unemployment benefits, the Obama administration wants to ban firms from discriminating against the long-term unemployed, a policy that threatens to generate more lawsuits than job growth. Yet Democrats have benefited from the fact that the GOP has failed to unite around a jobs agenda of its own.

Chris Christie and the ‘failed war on drugs’

Reihan Salam
Jan 24, 2014 18:48 UTC

What would you do if you were a high-profile governor caught in the midst of a pseudo-scandal, with the national news media hanging on your every word? Here’s an idea: rather than focus exclusively on hurling accusations and counter-accusations, talk about something that actually matters. That is what New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie did this past week. After weeks fending off accusations that he had systematically abused his power to punish his political enemies, Christie spent a good chunk of his second inaugural address on criminal justice reform. Cynical observers might conclude that the governor was shrewdly changing the subject, and they’d be right. But it happens that he is changing the subject to the most vexing policy challenge facing the United States, and arguably the most sorely neglected.

New Jersey is one of America’s most affluent states. Yet many of its largest cities are scarred by both high crime and an incarceration boom that has made a stint in prison a disturbingly common rite of passage, particularly for young black men. Though many believe that mass incarceration is a cure for violence, as it incapacitates potential victimizers, problems arise when incarceration becomes so commonplace that it is destigmatized, and that it ruins the lifelong earning potential of young men caught up in its net, few of whom go into prison as irredeemable villains. As Mark Kleiman, a public policy professor at UCLA and a leading advocate of criminal justice reform, argues in When Brute Force Fails, the chief challenge facing many people who wind up in prison is a lack of impulse control. And this problem can be more effectively addressed through low-cost interventions — like programs for parolees that offer modest punishments for failing drug tests, like a weekend in the clink — than through high-cost interventions, like a years-long prison sentence. What we’re dealing with is an enormous waste of human potential that harms not just the young men who wind up in prison, but also the families, and the children, they leave behind.

And that is exactly how Christie described the “failed war on drugs” in his second inaugural address. After stating that “every one of God’s creations has value,” and that the loss of a job can strip people of their dignity and self-respect, he railed against the notion that “incarceration is the cure of every ill caused by drug abuse,” and he promised to make drug treatment programs more widely available. He described his ultimate goal as creating “a society that understands that every life has value and no life is disposable,” a neat way of connecting his pro-life convictions to the cause of treating drug offenders more humanely.

Where is the GOP heading on immigration reform?

Reihan Salam
Jan 17, 2014 16:38 UTC

After falling off the radar for months, immigration reform is back. Late last year, Speaker John Boehner hired Rebecca Tallent — a veteran of Arizona Sen. John McCain’s efforts to offer a path to citizenship to large numbers of unauthorized immigrants — as one of his senior staffers. That decision strongly suggested that the GOP was on the verge of making a big immigration push. Laura Meckler and Kristina Peterson of the Wall Street Journal report that the Republican leadership is gravitating towards granting unauthorized immigrants provisional legal status that will give them the right to live and work in the United States, and that immigrants granted provisional status will eventually be allowed to apply for a green card.

This approach is not dramatically different from what has come before, and it is not at all clear why Boehner and his allies believe that conservative opponents of earlier proposals will now come on board. One possibility is that leading Republicans fear that Democrats will use the immigration issue as a weapon against them in the 2014 midterm elections, and that anything that takes the issue off the table is a win. Perhaps they believe that Republican lawmakers will fall into line to spare themselves a barrage of attack ads. Yet GOP critics of the bipartisan Gang of Eight senators, who’ve been the most aggressive advocates of immigration reform, are reluctant to grant the Obama administration wide discretion on immigration policy, particularly in light of the various creative ways the president has used his discretion to implement Obamacare.

The deeper disagreement among conservatives is over how immigration reform will interact with the welfare state. Immigration advocates insist that today’s immigrants are indistinguishable from the millions of immigrants who streamed into America’s farms and factories in earlier eras, and they often imply that the real reason immigration skeptics claim otherwise is simple xenophobia. The idea that less-skilled immigrants might become dependent on social programs in a fast-changing economy that prizes education more than the economy of the 1900s is, in this telling, highly offensive.

From Marco Rubio, a new approach to ending poverty

Reihan Salam
Jan 10, 2014 19:22 UTC

I realize that I ought to be writing about Chris Christie, the recently re-elected Republican governor of New Jersey, who has just had a brush with political death. But though I wish Christie well, and though I continue to believe that he is one of the most promising elected conservatives to have emerged in my lifetime, the Republican future rests less on the fate of individuals and more on the fate of ideas. And this week, one of Christie’s fellow presidential aspirants, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, introduced a genuinely new idea for helping tens of millions of Americans escape poverty.

On Thursday, the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s declaration of a “War on Poverty,” Rubio gave an address that weaved together stories from the lives of his immigrant parents with the barriers to upward mobility facing people very much like them today. “America is still the land of opportunity for most, but it is not a land of opportunity for all,” Rubio told the assembled crowd, drawing on the fact that 70 percent of U.S. children raised in poverty never achieve middle-income status.

Conservatives are known for celebrating American exceptionalism, and Rubio does so himself. Yet in this speech, he raised a number of awkward truths, like the fact that more Canadians surpass their parents’ incomes than Americans. Moreover, he offered a clear-eyed, if not complete, diagnosis of the reasons why so many Americans raised at the bottom of the income distribution remain stuck there. In the past, the U.S. economy was dynamic enough to replace jobs lost to automation or offshoring with new jobs. Yet that dynamism has suffered in recent years, and the result has been a series of jobless recoveries, each more disappointing than the last. After decades during which the educational attainment of Americans steadily increased, educational gains have stagnated. Nonmarital childbearing has grown more common, a seemingly self-reinforcing development in which the diminished economic prospects for less-skilled men make them less attractive as partners, and the sons of single mothers find it exceptionally difficult to stay in school.

Universal preschool may help parents more than children — and that’s okay

Reihan Salam
Jan 3, 2014 21:06 UTC

As a small child, I vaguely recall having attended a Montessori preschool in Brooklyn, which was loud, lively and colorful. One day, a classmate made a reference to his “parents,” an English word with which I, an imperfectly bilingual 3-year-old, was unfamiliar, and he explained that he was referring to his mother and father, words that I did understand. And so my vocabulary grew, in fits and starts. Pretty soon, I started attending kindergarten at a public elementary school, where I talked my way out of chores like putting away my things in my cubbyhole by protesting with a convincingly exasperated “but I’m only 4 years old.” Though that doesn’t sound like much of an excuse to my wizened old ears three decades later, it seems to have worked at the time.

But for all I may or may not have learned about the importance of cubbyhole management, the main virtue of early childhood education, from my family’s perspective, is that it allowed both of my parents to work. For most of my childhood, my mother and father worked two jobs while fulfilling other obligations (taking classes to complete a graduate degree in my mother’s case, studying for a licensing exam in my father’s), leaving my two older, but not that much older, sisters to pick me up from school and help me with my homework, among many other things. I find it difficult to believe that my life will ever be as sweet as it was in those years, when nothing was more exciting than tagging along as my father ferried my mother to her Saturday job in Staten Island. Change the equation even slightly — say I had only one older sister instead of two, and she wasn’t as capable as my real-world siblings, or if one of my parents had become seriously ill — and it is easy to imagine our harried but happy little world unraveling.

Which leads me to the debate over universal early education. Bill de Blasio, the new mayor of New York City, has pledged to provide full-day pre-K for all 4-year-olds in the five boroughs, and in last year’s State of the Union address, President Obama backed a similarly ambitious “Preschool for All” initiative. The problem with these efforts is that they promise too much about what preschool can do for children’s skills while glossing over what it can do for the earning potential of parents.

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