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.

The death of the Obamacare individual mandate

Reihan Salam
Dec 20, 2013 19:56 UTC

Obamacare is best understood as a collection of carrots and sticks designed to expand access to insurance coverage. But what happens to Obamacare if we get rid of the sticks? It looks like we’re about to find out.

During the Obamacare debate, many conservatives, myself included, warned that once the law was in place, the sticks would prove politically impossible to enforce, the carrots would have to get more and more generous to compensate, and the end result would be a fiscal calamity. We won’t know if this dire projection will be fully borne out for some time. What we do know is that at least one of the most important Obamacare sticks, the individual mandate, is already getting watered down, and it’s not crazy to imagine that it will at some point be abandoned. Before we get to the individual mandate, though, consider the carrots and sticks that apply to state governments and employers.

In the original legislation, states that agreed to expand Medicaid were promised new federal funds to help meet the cost of doing so (the carrot) while states that refused to expand Medicaid had to forsake federal Medicaid funds altogether (the stick). This combination of carrot and stick would have made refusing to expand Medicaid a very costly decision for state governments, virtually all of which are struggling to meet the high and rising cost of providing medical insurance to those who are already on Medicaid. Last summer, however, the Supreme Court ruled that the threat of removing all federal Medicaid funds from states that refused to play ball was unconstitutionally coercive, and so a large number of states have chosen not to expand Medicaid. Eventually, the holdout states might decide that the carrot of new federal money is too tempting to resist, particularly when neighboring states cash in. But for now, the all-carrot, no-stick approach has definitely held down the number of Medicaid enrollees.

The budget deal’s central achievement: protecting America’s military strength

Reihan Salam
Dec 13, 2013 19:47 UTC

Remember 1986? Ronald Reagan was in the White House, Dionne Warwick was topping the charts, and movie audiences swooned as Tom Cruise romanced Kelly McGillis in Top Gun. Children born in 1986 are now adults having children of their own. So it is sobering to realize that 1986 was also the last year in which a divided Congress — a Democratic House and a Republican Senate, to be precise — was able to reach a budget agreement. To the surprise of many, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, a leading light among conservative Republicans, and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray, a savvy Democrat with a populist streak, reached a modest budget deal at the start of this week that eased the rigid caps on discretionary spending imposed by sequestration in the short term, in exchange for more mandatory spending restraint over the long term.

Almost immediately, influential conservative lawmakers, like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, declared their opposition to the deal, as did influential conservative groups like Heritage Action, FreedomWorks, and the Club for Growth. For a brief moment, it looked as though the GOP’s right flank would choose another government shutdown over what many saw as a half-hearted compromise. But instead the House passed the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013 by a margin of 332-94, with 62 Republicans voting “no.” Assuming the Senate also passes the deal, the country will be spared a government shutdown until at least the fall of 2015.

To many rank-and-file Republican members, and in particular to those representing vulnerable House seats, this must come as a relief. In recent weeks, President Obama’s approval ratings have sharply declined. A recent Quinnipiac survey finds that only 38 percent of voters approve of the president. Moreover, they prefer Republican over Democratic House candidates by 41 percent to 38 percent, a marked improvement for the GOP. It seems that while the government shutdown damaged Republicans, a steady drumbeat of negative news coverage surrounding Obamacare implementation has given the GOP breathing room. Another government shutdown could reverse these gains and give the president and his allies the upper hand.

Mandela’s heirs face a rocky economic future

Reihan Salam
Dec 6, 2013 16:20 UTC

The death of Nelson Mandela is being mourned across the world, and for good reason. As the first president of post-apartheid South Africa, he served as a symbol of national reconciliation and as a defender of South Africa’s new and fragile liberal constitution. It is also true, however, that the movement he led, the African National Congress, has not lived up to lofty expectations, and that at least some of the responsibility lies with the great man himself.

Before we turn to what has gone wrong with post-apartheid South Africa, it is worth briefly rehearsing what has gone right, thanks in no small part to Mandela. During the apartheid era, South Africa’s Afrikaner-dominated ruling National Party warned that majority rule would bring violent reprisals against the country’s white minority, a Marxist revolution that would mean the end of private property, and an alliance with the Soviet bloc that would threaten the free world. None of that ultimately came to pass, for a variety of reasons. As the Soviet threat receded, and as anti-apartheid activists pressured governments in the U.S. and Western Europe to isolate the South African government, elements within the governing National Party sensed that the days of minority rule were numbered, and that some accommodation with the ANC was the only way to prevent a bloody denouement. And Mandela, to his great credit, proved a willing partner. Having established his moral authority within the liberation movement as a champion of armed insurrection against the apartheid government, he committed himself to a path of non-violence. One shudders to think of what might have happened had Mandela chosen differently. Mandela’s fateful decision to work with his former enemies paved the way for the ANC’s extraordinary political success.

Since 1994, when South Africa held its first authentically democratic and multiracial national elections, the ANC has won every national election by substantial margins, and there is good reason to believe that it will win the election that will be held next spring. Yet after almost two decades of ANC rule, the country suffers from shockingly high levels of poverty, unemployment, and violent crime. Hundreds of thousands of educated South Africans — white, black, and Asian — have emigrated in search of opportunity in Britain, Australia, the U.S., and elsewhere. Many middle-income countries that were in the same economic ballpark as South Africa in 1994 in terms of GDP per capita — like Poland, Malaysia, Chile, Mauritius, and neighboring Botswana — have raced ahead in the years since. When we compare South Africa to China or South Korea, the contrast is more dismal still.

When progress trumps privacy

Reihan Salam
Dec 2, 2013 14:47 UTC

In 1890, two of America’s leading legal minds, Louis Brandeis and Samuel Warren, published an article called “The Right to Privacy” in the Harvard Law Review. Scandalized by the rise of a gossip-mongering press that intruded on the lives of prominent citizens, they called upon the courts to recognize a “right to privacy.” Their fear was that new technological and commercial innovations — in this case photography and the mass-circulation gossip rag — would cause the rich and famous untold mental pain and distress. As Stewart Baker observes in his provocative book Skating on Stilts, the substance of Brandeis and Warren’s argument now seems rather quaint, as a gossipy news media has become a central part of our public life. In Baker’s telling, “the right to privacy was born as a reactionary defense of the status quo.” And even now, he argues, privacy campaigners often overreact against new technologies they fear but do not understand.

Baker’s argument has been panned in civil libertarian circles. When he suggests that societies eventually adapt to new technologies — that “the raw spot grows callous” as we grow accustomed to invasions of privacy — privacy campaigners reply that it is Baker who has grown callous to the harms in question. Baker’s central goal is to convince Americans to accept that government must use new technological tools, like the data mining programs used by the National Security Agency, to combat mass-casualty terrorism. His critics maintain that he is far too glib about the potential that government might abuse these new tools, and indeed too dismissive of the notion that it has already done so.

I’m torn on the question of whether the national security state has overstepped its bounds, and there are people I respect on both sides of the debate. Civil libertarians like Ben Wizner of the American Civil Liberties Union and Julian Sanchez of the Cato Institute see the new Leahy-Sensenbrenner USA FREEDOM Act– which would end the dragnet collection of Americans’ phone records under the PATRIOT Act, and limit other surveillance — as an important step towards reining in a bureaucracy run amok. Baker fears that it will cripple the ability of U.S. intelligence officials to prevent future terror attacks. I couldn’t tell you which side is closer to the mark.

What the filibuster’s demise means for the Supreme Court

Reihan Salam
Nov 22, 2013 21:53 UTC

Now that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has ended the filibuster for district and appeals court nominees and executive branch appointments, it’s only a matter of time before the filibuster goes away for Supreme Court nominations and legislation as well. Reid’s decision has been a long time coming: One of his predecessors, Republican Bill Frist, came very close to ending the filibuster in 2005.

Even so, at least some observers are troubled by what they see as Reid’s recklessness. Former Senator Olympia Snowe and former Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, co-chairs of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Commission on Political Reform, of which I’m a member, released a statement criticizing the filibuster decision on the grounds that “any alterations of rules or practices should be done judiciously, after careful consideration and with a balanced approach that incorporates views from all sides.”

The problem, however, is that the filibuster has not been used judiciously, by either Democrats or Republicans. Over the past forty years, it has been transformed from a tool designed to encourage deliberation to something else entirely. Josh Chafetz, a professor at Cornell Law School, argues that the filibuster has become an implicit supermajority requirement — one that violates the Constitution. According to Chafetz, the rules governing the legislative process and the appointments process are based on the premise that a determined legislative majority will eventually prevail over the minority, not that the minority has the right to exercise an effective veto. One could argue that there is a meaningful difference between using the filibuster to block judicial nominees and executive branch appointments, and using it to stymie legislation, but it’s not at all clear that such a distinction would hold up in a constitutional challenge.

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