Opinion

Reihan Salam

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.

Rather than fixate on ethnicity, conservatives would do well to think more about urbanity. What is it about life in America’s densest, most productive, and most economically stratified metropolitan areas that persuades voters to back Democrats? When this phenomenon was limited to the populous coastal metropolitan areas, it could reasonably be explained away as a product of regional political polarization. But the leftward trend in urban areas is chipping away at the GOP’s advantage in the South and the Mountain West as well.

Among conservatives, there is a broad post-election consensus that America’s demographic transformation represents a serious challenge for a Republican Party that is disproportionately backed by white Anglos and voters over the age of 65. Thus many on the right have called on congressional Republicans to embrace comprehensive immigration reform as part of a larger effort to woo Latino voters. The pushback has been that Latino voters tend to be less affluent and more likely to rely on anti-poverty programs such as SNAP and Medicaid, and so it is hardly surprising that they are more inclined to support Democrats. What is more striking, however, is that Asian-American voters, a relatively affluent group, favored Obama by 73 percent to 26 percent. One possible explanation is that Asian-Americans are heavily concentrated in dense coastal regions, where they vote much like white Anglos with similar educational profiles and religious beliefs. That is, secular college-educated Asian Americans appear to be about as hostile to the GOP as secular college-educated white Anglos, which is to say very much so.

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.

No matter who wins, there’s still a healthcare cost crisis

Reihan Salam
Oct 1, 2012 17:10 UTC

One of the strangest aspects of the 2012 presidential campaign is that President Obama has barely bothered to make the case for the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and Mitt Romney has only rarely summoned the will to make the case against it. This is despite the fact that ACA is arguably the most consequential domestic policy legislation since 1965, when President Johnson presided over the creation of Medicare and Medicaid.

The usual explanation for why we haven’t had a serious debate over ACA is that Democrats recognize that the law is not wildly popular and that Romney is boxed in by his continued support for the universal coverage law he backed as governor of Massachusetts. All of this may well be true. But the foundations of America’s patchwork health system are unraveling before our eyes, and conservatives need to make the case for a more cost-effective reform sooner rather than later.

It is commonly understood that the United States spends an incredibly large amount of money on personal healthcare – the number was $2.19 trillion in 2010 – and that health spending is increasing rapidly as a share of GDP. A high level of health spending isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It makes perfect sense that an affluent country will spend a great deal of money to keep its citizens healthy, and medical care is a complex service that demands a lot of skilled labor.

Actually, conservatives should favor even fewer people paying income tax

Reihan Salam
Sep 20, 2012 19:44 UTC

The outrage over Mitt Romney’s extended off-the-record riff to wealthy donors about the fact that “47 percent of Americans pay no income tax” has shown no sign of dying down. As of now, this looks like the defining moment of his presidential campaign. In lumping together those who have no federal income tax liability with those “who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them,” the former Massachusetts governor gave new life to every crude caricature of conservatives as class warriors for the ultrarich.

But did off-the-record Romney have a point? Is it a problem that we have narrowed the federal income tax base, or is there a case that conservatives seeking to contain the growth of government should strive to make the income tax base even narrower?

In a 2001 interview with Nicholas Lemann of the New Yorker, Republican Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina called the narrowing of the tax base “a major crisis in democracy.” Just months before the first Bush tax cut removed millions of households from the federal income tax rolls, DeMint warned that “the tax code will destroy democracy, by putting us in a position where most voters don’t pay for government.” DeMint’s dark premonition wasn’t enough to get President Bush to revamp his tax cut, but the idea has grown more popular among conservatives in the intervening years, hence Romney’s riff.

Obama and the ghost of Walter Mondale

Reihan Salam
Sep 6, 2012 17:47 UTC

When Barack Obama accepts the Democratic presidential nomination in Charlotte, he will no doubt channel party heroes of the past like Bill Clinton and JFK and FDR, all of whom are celebrated still for their charisma and raw political skills. But he would do well to heed the wisdom of Walter Mondale.

Yes, that’s right. Most Democrats see Mondale as a faintly embarrassing relic from an era in which Democrats had lost their way, and of course there is something to that. He was also one of the last Democrats to make the case that government was worth paying for, not just by the rich but also by the middle-income households that rely on expensive social programs.

By the summer of 1984, Mondale, the former Minnesota senator who had served as vice-president under Jimmy Carter, knew that he was facing an uphill battle for the White House. The brutal Reagan recession had given way to a V-shaped Reagan recovery, and Reagan Democrats were thick on the ground. So Mondale decided to do something very strange at that year’s Democratic National Convention. Rather than make the most anodyne, ultra-cautious, poll-tested argument he and his team could conjure up, he told the truth as he understood it. “Mr. Reagan will raise your taxes,” he told the assembled delegates. “And so will I.”

Artur Davis and the crucial role of party switchers

Reihan Salam
Aug 29, 2012 15:07 UTC

TAMPA, Florida – If you’ve been watching the Republican National Convention at home, you probably missed the speech former Representative Artur Davis of Alabama gave on Tuesday night. Sandwiched between Ted Cruz, the Tea Party darling who won an impressive come-from-behind victory in Texas’s GOP Senate primary, and Nikki Haley, the strikingly youthful Indian-American governor of South Carolina, Davis was overshadowed in most of the media coverage. MSNBC decided not to air Davis’s speech at all, which was a noteworthy omission given that Davis had cut his political teeth as a Democrat and indeed as an enthusiastic early backer of President Obama.

But on a star-studded night, before hotly anticipated speeches by Ann Romney and conservative action hero Chris Christie, it was Davis who gave the most effective performance. It was so effective, in fact, that I heard many of the assembled participants speculate about which office he’d run for next.

Party switchers are a staple at these quadrennial affairs. They dramatize the case against the opposition by offering dispatches from within the belly of the beast and signal that it’s safe for voters to forswear their old allegiances. And so they serve the double function of rallying the base and wooing the center.

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