Opinion

Reihan Salam

In search of ‘Mr. Republican’

Reihan Salam
Mar 10, 2014 19:57 UTC

Who will be the next “Mr. Republican”? While the race for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination gets underway, there is another, more informal race going on as well. Since the Second World War, there have been a handful of elected Republicans who have distinguished themselves not by winning the White House, but rather by setting the party’s ideological direction.

The first Mr. Republican was Robert A. Taft, the Ohio senator who served as the most scathing conservative critic of FDR and the New Deal, and who later warned that America’s Cold War entanglements threatened freedom at home. His successor was Barry Goldwater, who called for rolling back the frontiers of the welfare state at home and communism abroad, and through his crushing defeat paved the way for the Great Society and a vast expansion of federal power. Goldwater inspired a generation of conservatives, including Ronald Reagan, who eventually overpowered the moderates and liberals who once played a central role in the party.

Jack Kemp crafted a less hard-edged and more optimistic “bleeding-heart conservatism,” which celebrated economic growth as a painless way to finance rising social expenditures. And Newt Gingrich, as architect of the first Republican House majority in a generation, offered a combustible mix of high-minded techno-utopianism and scorched-earth partisanship that transformed American politics.

Last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference saw a whole host of Republican standouts jockeying for position, including Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. But with the exception of Rand Paul, these men aren’t offering distinctive new visions for the GOP.

To be the next Mr. Republican (or Ms. Republican, if the current bench included more women), you need to offer a full complement of policy positions and a theory of how they fit together. The closest we’ve come to a Mr. Republican in the post-Bush years might have been Jim DeMint, the former senator from South Carolina. DeMint’s embrace of the Tea Party insurgency played a key role in its early success, and in its early failures. But when DeMint left electoral politics behind to run the Heritage Foundation, his pronouncements lost the weight that comes from being accountable to voters. Tom Coburn, the senator from Oklahoma, has the intellect and the political shrewdness the role of Mr. Republican demands, but his decision to retire from office removes him from the picture.

The one budget proposal worth seizing

Reihan Salam
Mar 5, 2014 00:02 UTC

President Obama’s new budget for fiscal year 2015 is almost entirely free of surprises. The Obama administration supports a number of large tax increases, most but not all of which target high-income households, and so the budget assumes that revenues will grow faster than expenditures over the coming decades and that debt levels will decline. One key reason the White House is able to paint so rosy a picture is that its economic assumptions are different from those of the more buttoned-up Congressional Budget Office. Specifically, the Office of Management and Budget, which is responsible for crafting the president’s budget proposal, maintains that the U.S. economy will be 2 percentage points bigger in 2024 than it will be in the CBO’s projection.

This might not sound like a huge difference. But it matters more than you might think. The CBO has devoted considerable time and effort to understand why its 2010 prediction of a robust economic recovery failed to materialize, and it found that the post-crisis recovery really has been as dismal as it feels. Sluggish capital investment has contributed to sluggish productivity growth, and the labor market recovery hasn’t been strong enough to draw the long-term unemployed back into steady jobs.

With this sobering picture in mind, the CBO has lowered its estimate for America’s economic growth potential over the next decade to a mere 2.5 percent, far lower than the 3.3 percent that’s been the average growth rate for the U.S. economy since 1950. CBO projects that real GDP growth will actually fall to 2.2 percent in the second half of the next decade, which is to say they assume things will get worse rather than better. It turns out that even quite small changes, on the order of a 0.1 percentage point difference in the average annual growth rate, can have enormous fiscal consequences. So it’s very noteworthy that between 2010 and 2014, the CBO’s forecast for average real GDP growth over the next decade has gone from 3 percent to 2.5 percent.

The ‘grand compromise’ that wasn’t

Reihan Salam
Feb 24, 2014 21:36 UTC

One of President Obama’s defining convictions is that he is the most reasonable man in our nation’s capitol. He seems to view opposition to his agenda as a reflection of intellectual or moral failures (my opponents don’t understand the underlying issues well enough, or their hearts aren’t big enough), or as a product of naked cynicism (my opponents are dishonest, and they will do anything to defeat me). To prove his point, the president will occasionally tout an idea from the other side of the aisle, or rather an idea he imagines to be from the other side of the aisle. And when his political opponents don’t embrace the idea, well, that means that they are acting in bad faith.

So I was delighted by the news that the Obama administration is changing its tune on Social Security in its forthcoming budget proposal. Last year, the president included a Social Security reform compromise in the budget proposal he presented to Congress. This year he has decided not to do so. But the truth is that the president’s Social Security compromise wasn’t a compromise at all. His decision to jettison it is a refreshing change of pace. And while the reforms aren’t officially part of the 2015 budget proposal, they remain relevant because Obama is treating them as a concession he’ll make if Republicans agree to raise taxes.

According to the president and his allies, the White House was only willing to compromise on Social Security, by cutting benefits, if Republicans were willing to give a little too, by agreeing to higher taxes. The problem is that his idea for cutting Social Security benefits is actually pretty bad, and it would also raise taxes. In other words, the president’s offer to the GOP is, “Hey, why don’t you share the blame for this thing that will make Social Security worse for seniors and raise taxes, and in return for my generosity you’ll let me raise taxes even more?” You will be shocked to learn that Republican lawmakers were not thrilled by this idea.

GOP: Beyond repealing to reforming

Reihan Salam
Feb 17, 2014 20:46 UTC

The last time the federal government approached its statutory debt limit, Republicans in the House of Representatives fought tooth and nail to attach tough conditions to any increase. On Tuesday, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) shepherded a “clean” debt limit increase through that barely raised an eyebrow.

This increase didn’t even set a dollar amount. It simply suspended the debt limit until next March. I can almost hear the conversation: “So, where should we set the new debt limit?” “Ah, you know, whatever!”

One clue as to why House Republicans went along with Boehner’s clean debt limit increase is the vote total. The bill was backed by 193 Democrats and only 28 Republicans. You could say that Democratic lawmakers rescued their Republican counterparts from having to take responsibility for increasing the debt limit.

More Americans should work abroad

Reihan Salam
Feb 7, 2014 19:03 UTC

On Thursday, House Speaker John Boehner told members of the press that though immigration is “an important issue in our country” (thanks for that, John), it will be difficult to move immigration legislation this year. According to Boehner, the chief stumbling block is that Republican lawmakers simply don’t trust the Obama administration to implement a new immigration law in an aboveboard way. It is also true, however, that conservatives in the House doubt Boehner’s instincts on immigration, and worry that following his lead will do them more political harm than good. I tend to think that the skeptics are right, and that the GOP ought to put immigration reform on the back-burner.

But just because we can’t agree on immigration reform doesn’t mean that we can’t agree on emigration reform, a subject I’m guessing you’ve never heard about. Believe it or not, the question of how easy we make it for Americans to live and work outside of the United States will be almost as important in the decades to come as the question of who we should let live and work in the United States is now.

Though you’d hardly know it from our domestic political conversation, U.S. migration doesn’t just involve foreigners moving to the United States. It also involves Americans moving to foreign countries. And I’m not just talking about the troops stationed in southern Afghanistan, Okinawa, or Germany. The State Department estimates that 6.3 million U.S. citizens live outside of the United States, a number that explicitly excludes military personnel. Granted, as a share of America’s gargantuan population of 314 million, the American diaspora is an awfully modest 2 percent. Some will no doubt see this as cause for celebration, particularly sentimental Americans who can’t stand the thought of having loved ones move to distant locales. While I hate the thought of losing friends and family to Montevideo or Marrakech as much as the next guy, the truth is that the American diaspora enriches us all, and the United States would be much better off if it were much larger.

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.

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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