Opinion

Reihan Salam

Somebody find the GOP a carrot

Reihan Salam
Jan 11, 2013 21:47 UTC

As House Republicans gird themselves for battle over the debt limit, they are united by an adamantine conviction that something must be done about federal spending, and soon. The challenge Republicans face, however, is that they’ve become the party of all sticks and no carrots.

Back in 1976, Jude Wanniski, the idiosyncratic supply-side guru, published a short essay arguing that while the Democrats are the spending Santa Claus, bearing promises of more government benefits, Republicans should become the tax Santa Claus, bearing promises of tax cuts. That is famously what happened during the Reagan era.

But as the tax burden on middle-income households dwindled, middle-income swing voters started to care less about taxes and more about the cost of medical insurance, higher education, and a whole host of quality-of-life issues. President Bill Clinton exploited this dynamic by politically championing middle-income tax cuts and tax increases on high earners at the same time, a tactic that has paid dividends for Democrats ever since. Republicans have found themselves defending tax cuts for high earners while offering little if anything to middle-income voters but calls for entitlement reform. Whether or not this stance is defensible on policy grounds, it’s certainly not what Santa would do.

And after the fiscal cliff deal, during which the Republican leadership acknowledged that it was powerless to stop tax increases on high earners, the GOP finds itself in a bind. Federal taxes are expected to rise to 19.4 percent of GDP, a level that is well above the 17.8 percent of GDP that had been the average federal tax take from 1946 to 2008. There are good reasons why tax levels might be higher now than they have been in the past, including the aging of the baby boom cohort. But the growth of federal spending over the coming decades threatens to outstrip the ability of taxpayers to bear it, particularly if Congress aims to shield middle-income households from punishing tax increases.

Democrats can still play the role of Santa Claus by claiming, however implausibly, that tax hikes on the rich are all we need to pay for future federal spending increases, with an assist from technocratic fixes like the Independent Payment Advisory Board. Republicans, in contrast, are in desperate need of a new Santa Claus narrative, as across-the-board tax cuts are just not as appealing or affordable as they have been in decades past.

Does Britain’s austerity hold lessons for the United States?

Reihan Salam
Jan 4, 2013 16:16 UTC

The dog’s breakfast of a deal that “resolved” the fiscal cliff fell far short of expectations. In the hours after it passed, deficit hawks at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget and the tag team of former Senator Alan Simpson and former Clinton White House chief of Staff Erskine Bowles all expressed disappointment in a bargain that was anything but grand. Senate Republicans gritted their teeth to accept a small increase in taxes on America’s highest-earning households while Senate Democrats made permanent the bulk of the Bush-era tax cuts. A number of tax provisions that hark back to the 2009 fiscal stimulus law were extended, as were unemployment benefits, thus delivering a modest income boost to a large number of low-income households. But the Social Security payroll tax cut, a Republican-backed replacement for the more narrowly targeted Making Work Pay tax credit that was part of the stimulus law, which benefited a wide range of affluent households as well as families of more modest means, was allowed to lapse. Long-term spending levels, meanwhile, were left largely untouched, which is why rebellious House Republicans came close to scuttling the delicately constructed compromise.

One group that offered at least two cheers for the deal were deficit doves, who believe that premature fiscal consolidation poses a grave threat to America’s sluggish economic recovery. Paul Krugman, the prominent economist and popular left-of-center New York Times columnist who never shrinks from apocalyptic pronouncements, was almost pleased to see that the deal avoided any serious spending cuts and that it entailed relatively modest near-term tax increases.

There is a coherent approach to reconciling the concerns of deficit hawks and doves, which has been championed by former Senator Pete Domenici and former Clinton budget director Alice Rivlin of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Debt Reduction Task Force. Essentially, it entails addressing the federal government’s structural budget deficit — the gap between revenues and spending levels when the economy is humming along at its “normal” pace — while allowing for substantial deficits so long as the economy is in recovery mode.

After Boehner’s Plan B, crafting a new plan for Republicans

Reihan Salam
Dec 21, 2012 20:42 UTC

House Speaker John Boehner has struggled for weeks to unite his fellow Republicans around a deal to avert the fiscal cliff. Having failed to find a package of tax increases and spending cuts acceptable to the Obama administration and the House GOP, he pivoted to a politically shrewd “Plan B” that would have extended all of the Bush-era tax cuts except for the high-income rate reductions that applied to income above a $1 million threshold. But as Boehner and his lieutenants worked to rally support, they found that they didn’t have the votes to pass “Plan B.” And so Boehner has suffered what is widely regarded as a humiliating defeat, one that has left many observers wondering whether he can survive for long as speaker.

Whether or not Boehner manages to regain his standing with House Republicans, his defeat raises a number of more significant questions about where Republicans should go from here.

Until the next presidential election, Boehner and the House Republicans are the face of the GOP. There are, to be sure, a number of talented Republican governors, yet most of them are either deeply engaged with issues close to home or too obscure or low-wattage to have much of a national impact. All but a handful of House Republicans represent constituencies with substantial Republican majorities, thanks in no small part to the influence of Republican state legislators in drawing district boundaries. The GOP is thus likely to hold the House for years to come, even if Hillary Clinton wins the White House come 2016. Like it or not, conservatives need the House GOP to get its act together sooner rather than later. But how?

Tax hikes conservatives can love

Reihan Salam
Dec 14, 2012 21:22 UTC

Though it is hard to tell exactly how the fiscal cliff tug-of-war will end, what we can say is that Democrats and Republicans have been drearily unimaginative. President Obama wants to see the top two federal income tax rates increase above their current levels.

Obama has called for a top rate of 39.6 percent, though he has signaled a willingness to compromise on a somewhat lower rate. While he has said he is open to entitlement reform in some vague way, he has so far refused to be pinned down on the details. Essentially, he is asking congressional Republicans to make a big concession on taxes and to trust that he will honor his end of the deal by agreeing to embrace spending restraint in 2013.

Republicans are by and large opposed to a top tax rate above today’s 35 percent. Though they too have been light on details, many have instead embraced sharp limits on popular tax exemptions for high earners to raise revenue. Others have suggested they’d be willing to budge on tax rates. Representative Tom Cole (R-OK) has called on his fellow House Republicans to pass two bills, one that extends the Bush-era high-income rate reductions and another that extends everything else, with the understanding that the latter will become law while the former will fall into oblivion. This strategic retreat is designed to allow Republicans to use the forthcoming fight over the debt limit to secure, among other things, a hike in the Medicare eligibility age.

Rubio: Reframing a conservative agenda

Reihan Salam
Dec 6, 2012 05:44 UTC

It will take many years for Republicans to live down presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s now infamous remarks about “the 47 percent,” that broad swath of Americans he wrote off as eager for handouts and unwilling to take responsibility for their own lives. But Tuesday, Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), once widely touted as Romney’s ideal running mate, gave an extraordinary address that offered a very different message — one that could foreshadow the next Republican presidential campaign.

Rubio was elected to the Senate in 2010 as a stalwart Tea Party conservative, who drove his moderate opponent Charlie Crist out of the GOP after a fiercely contested primary. Since then, however, Rubio has steered clear of the confrontational rhetoric favored by many of his conservative allies. He has instead been championing the idea that the problem facing Republicans is not the shiftlessness of the 47 percent, but rather the party’s failure to speak to the aspirations of middle-income strivers.

During an address in Washington to the Jack Kemp Foundation, Rubio laid out a compelling diagnosis of the challenges facing American society. He began on a prosaic note, describing how the failure to reform Medicare today will necessitate more stringent cutbacks in the future and how America’s byzantine tax code and excessive regulation stifle growth. So far, so familiar.

The Republicans’ urban problem

Reihan Salam
Nov 27, 2012 13:18 UTC

In a post-election interview with the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee and the GOP’s 2012 vice presidential nominee, said “the president should get credit for achieving record-breaking turnout numbers from urban areas for the most part, and that did win the election for him.” Ryan’s critics noted that President Barack Obama also fared well in states like Iowa, where the urban vote is relatively small. Some even suggested that Ryan’s remarks were a kind of racial code, in which “urban areas” served as a stand-in for black and Latino voters. Yet Ryan’s observation speaks to a deeper truth that should trouble Republicans.

Although rural regions dominate the map of the contiguous United States, an overwhelming majority of Americans live in urban and suburban areas. Democrats have long dominated dense urban cores. But Democrats increasingly dominate dense inner suburbs—as opposed to sprawling outer suburbs, where Republicans still hold their own—as well, and the share of the population concentrated in dense suburban counties is steadily increasing. This is true not only among Latino, black, and Asian voters living in these communities, but of white voters as well.

Consider, for example, the political trajectory of Fairfax County in northern Virginia, a dense suburban county with a population of 1.1 million that lies just across the Potomac from Washington, D.C. As recently as 2000, the GOP presidential candidate George W. Bush won Fairfax with 48.9 percent of the vote to Al Gore’s 47.5 percent. In 2004, though, Bush lost Fairfax to John Kerry 45.9 percent to 53.3 percent. Barack Obama won Fairfax by an overwhelming 60.1 percent in 2008, and he won it again by an only slightly less overwhelming 59 percent in 2012. One of the most striking numbers from Fairfax is that George W. Bush’s winning vote total in 2000 — 202,181 — is an eerily close match for Mitt Romney’s losing total in 2012 — 206,733. It just so happens that Obama won 315,273 votes in 2012. And Fairfax is hardly alone. Orange County, California—once  a hotbed of Goldwaterite conservatism—backed Mitt Romney by 51.9 percent of the vote, a sharp decline from the 55.8 percent support George W. Bush received in 2000. You’ll find the same pattern in Wake County, North Carolina, DuPage County, Illinois and Jefferson County, Colorado and other populous inner suburban counties across the country. In The Emerging Democratic Majority, John Judis and Ruy Teixeira referred to these communities as post-industrial “ideopolises,” in which economic life revolves around college-educated professionals working in knowledge-intensive services and the less-skilled workers who meet their various needs.

Fighting threats in the age of austerity

Reihan Salam
Nov 13, 2012 17:36 UTC

Now that President Obama has been reelected, he faces a number of basic questions about the future of America’s national security strategy. The most immediate of these concerns how the president will address the deep cuts to defense expenditures that will be triggered under last year’s Budget Control Act if congressional Republicans and Democrats can’t reach an agreement on a deficit deal. Answering this question requires a broader sense of the threats we face and what we ought to do about them.

When compared to the height of the Cold War, when the Soviet empire had nuclear weapons trained on virtually every inch of U.S. soil, it is fair to say that the world is a much less dangerous place for Americans, and we shouldn’t forget it. But when compared to the relative peace and security, Islamic terrorism notwithstanding, we’ve enjoyed in the two decades since the Soviet collapse, there is good reason to believe that the threat level is increasing. This is happening at the same time that sluggish economic growth and rising social expenditures are squeezing America’s ability to pay for an enormous military establishment.

Since the 9/11 terror attacks, America’s national security conversation has focused primarily on the threat of mass-casualty terrorism. Hundreds of billions of dollars have been devoted by the public and private sectors to harden domestic targets, with no small success. A fundamental problem, however, is that a free society will always be vulnerable to conventional terrorist attacks, which can be executed by disaffected individuals as well as by highly-trained violent extremists. And while we can harden one set of targets, like airplanes and airports, there will always be softer targets for terrorists to exploit. Moreover, conventional terrorist attacks, as horrifying as they may be, are much less of a threat to public safety in the United States than, say, traffic accidents. John Mueller, a provocative political scientist at Ohio State University, has observed that far fewer Americans died in 2001 from transnational terrorism than from peanut allergies, yet the U.S. government has yet to declare war on peanuts. As awful as it sounds, the best approach to conventional terrorism might be for Americans to allow the intelligence services to do the difficult, painstaking work of containing it while accepting that it will be part of our future in a violent world.

The rise and future role of Paul Ryan

Reihan Salam
Oct 31, 2012 18:51 UTC

Regardless of the outcome of this year’s presidential election, Mitt Romney has greatly elevated the stature and the reach of Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee and this year’s GOP vice presidential nominee. And though the presidential election is extremely close — indeed, though Barack Obama may well have the upper hand — one can’t help but speculate about the role Ryan would play in a Romney White House, and in the larger conservative movement.

For much of his tenure in Congress, Ryan has devoted himself to crafting ambitious policy initiatives that barely saw the light of day. During the Bush administration, the young Wisconsin congressman pressed for an overhaul of Medicare that would create a prescription drug benefit while also implementing a system designed to contain cost growth. In the end, crucial portions were abandoned due to opposition from gun-shy congressional Republicans as well as congressional Democrats. Ryan was also one of the most enthusiastic champions of revamping Social Security by introducing voluntary personal accounts, an effort that arguably boomeranged by contributing to the dramatic Democratic comeback in the 2006 congressional elections.

The boomerang kept going; it was President Obama’s health reform effort that gave Ryan a new lease on life. Together with Senator Tom Coburn and a handful of other conservative allies, he offered a right-of-center proposal for coverage expansion. Though Ryan’s plan wasn’t embraced by most members of the Republican caucus, it established him as a thought leader on the right. After Republicans won the House in 2010, Speaker John Boehner named Ryan chairman of the House Budget Committee, a role he used to great effect. Rather than stick to setting broad goals and priorities, Ryan devised a budget proposal that set the agenda for conservatives for years to come on entitlement reform. At the time, many of them saw Ryan’s call for a market-oriented overhaul of Medicare as politically suicidal. And indeed, President Obama waged war on Ryan’s proposal, devoting an entire speech in April 2011 to attacking it. The president went so far as to characterize Ryan’s agenda as “thinly veiled Social Darwinism.”

Are we having the wrong marriage debate?

Reihan Salam
Oct 19, 2012 21:34 UTC

The marriage debate is entering a new phase. As recently as 1996, a Gallup survey found that 68 percent of Americans opposed civil marriage rights for same-sex couples. On May 8 of this year, Gallup released a report which found that only 48 percent were opposed to same-sex marriage while 50 percent were in favor. The next day, in an interview with Robin Roberts of ABC News, President Barack Obama announced that he too favored the legal recognition of same-sex marriage, a move that delighted social liberals, many of whom believed that the president’s previous tepid opposition was rooted in political concerns rather than real conviction.

Even in the months since, the legal and political ground has continued to shift in favor of same-sex marriage. Just this week, a divided panel of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the federal Defense of Marriage Act, a law that limits federal recognition of marriages to couples consisting of one man and one woman, is unconstitutional. Meanwhile, ballot initiatives aiming to uphold laws authorizing same-sex civil marriage are leading in Maine, Maryland and Washington. Perhaps most strikingly, a re-energized Romney campaign has made little effort to capitalize on opposition to same-sex marriage.

Opponents of the practice have no intention of throwing in the towel; nor is it inevitable that the legal and political efforts of advocates will continue to succeed. In November, Sherif Girgis, Robert P. George, and Ryan T. Anderson are releasing What Is Marriage?, a vigorous intellectual critique of the case for same-sex civil marriage that has attracted wide attention in traditionalist circles. Moreover, opponents have achieved a number of political victories at the state and local level, most notably in North Carolina in May of this year.

Moving beyond our vacuous education reform discussions

Reihan Salam
Oct 12, 2012 16:16 UTC

Barack Obama is a champion of education reform. So is Mitt Romney. Even in the midst of an extremely polarized political season, the former Massachusetts governor has offered praise for Arne Duncan, President Obama’s secretary of education, and for the Obama administration’s Race to the Top initiative. The same is true of Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, who has emerged as the GOP’s leading point person on fixing America’s schools. To those who lament partisan rancor, this might look like very good news. But it’s not. Rather, it is an indication that our conversation about “education reform” is pretty vacuous.

The reform label applies to at least three broad ideas: (1) standards-oriented reform, or let’s have more testing and accountability; (2) human capital reform, or let’s have better teachers; and (3) choice-oriented reform, or let’s use “backpack funding” that will allow public education dollars to follow the student wherever she chooses to enroll, whether it’s a neighborhood public school, a public charter or (perhaps) a voucher-eligible private school. Many people who love one kind of reform hate the others, so saying you’re “pro-reform” doesn’t mean very much.

That shouldn’t come as a shock. There is something about public education that starts Americans gushing and makes them sentimental and unrigorous. Hardly anyone disagrees with the late R&B songstress Whitney Houston, who believed that the children are our future and that we should teach them well and let them lead the way. Schmaltz is deployed on all sides of the debate – from teachers’ union members who insist that those who oppose across-the-board pay hikes don’t care about kids to voucher proponents who specialize in heartstring-tugging tales of inner-city youth.

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