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.

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.

How to fix the GOP’s discipline problem

Reihan Salam
Oct 4, 2013 20:28 UTC

As the government shutdown grinds on, the Republican leadership in the House is struggling to unite GOP lawmakers around a fiscal deal that Senate Democrats and the Obama administration would be willing to accept. Speaker John Boehner has reportedly said that he is willing to rely on Democratic votes if necessary to pass an increase in the debt ceiling. Yet he also insists that he will fight for spending cuts and entitlement reform in any debt ceiling bill, in a nod to conservative members who are convinced that he is eager to sell them out.

Whether or not Boehner succeeds, it is increasingly difficult to deny that the Republican negotiating position is being constrained if not dictated by a small minority of 30 or so members from safe seats who seem largely indifferent to leadership demands, or rather leadership requests. The result is that the much-derided Republican establishment is in a state of panic, sensing that GOP intransigence will lead the party to squander the political opportunity created by the president’s declining fortunes and the persistent unpopularity of Obamacare. How has party discipline broken down to this extent, and what, if anything, can Republicans do to restore it?

First, it is important to recognize that this chaotic confrontation wasn’t supposed to happen. At the start of the year, congressional Republicans seemed eager to return to regular order, in which, essentially, the House majority brokers with the Senate majority to pass legislation, which the president can then sign or veto. Yuval Levin, writing for National Review Online, argued that for the right, the central political problem with the endless succession of fiscal showdowns is that they inevitably made the president, as a unitary figure, look better than the often-fractious House Republican conference. Regular order, in contrast, would demand that Senate Democrats put up or shut up by codifying their commitments, not all of which are popular in hotly-contested states, in real legislation. House Republicans and Senate Democrats would be on a relatively level playing field, while the president would be relegated to the sidelines. But the regular order strategy didn’t come to fruition, both because Senate Democrats were reluctant to play along and because a determined minority of House Republicans couldn’t reconcile themselves to the fact that the ordinary legislative process left them with very little leverage.

Chris Christie, the Republican Bill Clinton

Reihan Salam
May 15, 2013 17:24 UTC

Chris Christie, the Republican governor of New Jersey, has a lot to be happy about. The recent revelation that he had lap-band surgery to gain control of his weight went about as well as could be expected. A less well-liked public figure might have been mocked for taking an extreme step, but Christie’s self-deprecating wit and what at least seems like unrehearsed genuineness and warmth have served as a shield. Like Bill Clinton in his prime, Christie has a mix of great appetite and great energy that Americans find strangely compelling.

And because there are only two gubernatorial elections in 2013, Christie’s bid for re-election is attracting a good deal of national attention, almost all of which has been positive. A new NBC News/Marist poll, released on Wednesday of last week found that Christie has a 69 percent approval rating, and that he leads his most likely Democratic challenger, State Senator  Barbara Buono, by 60 percent to 28 percent among registered voters. Among likely voters, Christie’s support increases to 62 percent while Buono’s stays the same.

Christie still has to overcome the fact that the New Jersey electorate skews left, as demonstrated by Barack Obama’s crushing 58to-40 percent victory over Mitt Romney in last year’s presidential election. One can imagine Democrats and left-of-center independents deciding they can’t back a self-described conservative for governor, no matter how much they like him personally. Mindful of this danger, Christie has been keen to emphasize his willingness to work across the aisle. In a new campaign advertisement, a narrator with a soothing baritone voice praises the New Jersey governor for “working with Democrats and Republicans, believing that as long as you stick to your principles, compromise isn’t a dirty word.”

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.

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.”

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