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Ross Douthat: Going Back to the Archives with the New Times Columnist

Word is out today (via his soon-to-be-former Atlantic blogging colleague Marc Ambinder), that the New York Times has picked Ross Douthat to fill the regular op-ed spot (assumed to be reserved for a conservative writer) that Bill Kristol had held for the past year (Gray Lady scholars tell me: is this William Safire's old slot?). In case you're not familiar with Douthat (either from his Atlantic blog or his book from last summer, Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream), he's one of the rising (29-year-old!) brains of the right (and one of my favorites to read, although I end up disagreeing with him more often than I agree).

If you want an introduction to his way of thinking, you can listen to the interview I did with Douthat and his coauthor Reihan Salam last fall, as part of our election year coverage--during the Democratic National Convention, to be exact (and therefore just before the sudden rise of Sarah Palin, whom I'm sure we would have discussed at great length). You can listen to our podcast here, or read the full transcript after the jump. (I have to say I love their author photo, which could not be more DC-wonky, with that nondescript K Street-style building in the background instead of one of the glamorous monuments or government buildings.) We're talking with Ross Douthat and Reihan Salaam, both editors at The Atlantic, who have collaborated on their first book together--Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream. Thanks for joining us.

Ross Douthat: Thanks so much for having us. We're talking during the week of the Democratic National Convention. I think Hillary speaks tonight. So I guess you guys have a bye this week?

Ross: Yeah, we're off. We'll be flying off to St. Paul next week. It wasn't that long ago that Karl Rove could argue with only grudging objection that he had engineered a new Republican majority that would last a generation, but at the end of an unpopular administration with more voters starting to identify themselves as Democrats, things seem to be in balance again.

You argue that what really lies in the balance is the working class, or at least part of the working class, who have gone from being New Deal Democrats to Reagan Republicans but now who can't be relied on by either party. Is that true?

Ross: Yeah, that's the general idea. The big part of our argument in the book is that the working class, which we define as non college-educated Americans, has been basically the defining swing constituency in American politics over the last 35 years, and that it swung to the Republicans repeatedly. It created Richard Nixon's famous silent majority. It created the Reagan Democrats, it created Newt Gangrich's famous angry white men constituency in 1994, and a super majority of the white working class, especially, put George Bush over the top in 2004.

But the Republican Party has always had trouble holding on to these voters over a longer period of time and forging them into the kind of broader majority that Franklin Roosevelt enjoyed, and we're in another period right now where they seem to be swinging back towards the Democrats. Why do you think they can't hold on to those voters?

Reihan Salam: Well, I think that these voters have felt that certain republican policies resonated with their interests for a long period of time. For example it's important to understand that the working class voters we're talking about tend to be actually not impoverished by any means, but they tend to be relatively prosperous. And so they've been sensitive to tax burdens for long periods of time. They've also been very concerned with issues like public order, and the health of the culture.

But I think that when you look at the 2004 election for example, Bush made really dramatic gains because there was a level of cultural identification with Bush as a candidate, and as a political personality. But I think that you saw that erode very very quickly. That identification extended to Bush personally, and when Bush lost a lot of personal popularity that identification with the Republican brand eroded, because again it wasn't very deep.

So, I think that's what you see happening. You don't see this kind of tight connection between Republican policies and the interests of this constituency all the time.

Ross: Piggybacking on what Reihan just said, the Republican Party is in many ways a victim of its own success on this front, because working-class voters moved into the Republican column because of a very specific set of issues. Issues like public order, which Reihan mentioned--the rising crime rate in the seventies and eighties was a big driver of working class support for the GOP because Republicans were perceived as being tougher on crime.

The tax burden, as Reihan said, was a big issue in the seventies and eighties for working and middle-class Americans, and the perception that the federal bureaucracy was broken, embodied particularly by a broken welfare system, was also a big driver. But on all these fronts Republicans succeeded in cutting taxes way below where they were when Ronald Reagan was running for President in the late seventies, particularly income taxes.

The crime rate has fallen for 15 years now. The welfare system has been reasonably successfully reformed, again driven in large part by Republicans. And so you have a situation where the GOP doesn't have the old issues that used to resonate and the success of Bush was driven in part I think just by the after effects of 9/11 in the sense that this was going to be an era where national security was going to rise to the fore. And that has remained a Republican strength.

But when things went badly for a long time in Iraq, as economic concerns rose to the forefront again, the Republican Party basically just finds itself without a lot of things to talk about on policy.
Reihan: Yeah, I mean if you look at what Bush actually  the proposals that he advanced when he declared that he had political capital and he was about to spend it--very, very striking stuff.

What did he advance? He advanced an agenda of Social Security reform that looked to a lot of Americans like something that was undermining a stable leg of their retirement security at the very same time the defined benefit pensions in the corporate world were going the way of the dinosaur. And at the same time, if you look at what else he was pushing domestically, he was pushing a sweeping immigration reform that really just tied in to a feeling among a lot of Americans that law breaking was being rewarded.

So I think that there definitely was some component of this that was conservative outrage over Bush heterodoxy on the immigration front, but there was also a piece in which you found that a lot of those people who were voting for Bush really had a big investment in the middle-class welfare state.

And so they didn't really agree with that very ideological part of the Bush agenda. What resonated with them were policies that made sense to them in terms of their cost of living, their quality of life. But once you went into these other areas that it was very hard to connect to the needs and interests of this constituency, then they started abandoning the Republicans in droves on domestic issues.

So I think that was a serious misstep that Bush made in his second term. As you guys make the point, it's almost forgotten at this point that Bush didn't consider himself a foreign-policy president at the beginning of his term. You argue, I think pretty convincingly, that one reason he won the election was his domestic policies, his kind of "compassionate conservatism," that hasn't played out as anyone expected.

Could you talk a little bit more about the early Bush?

Ross: Sure. The whole idea behind compassionate conservatism was that the Republican Party in the late 1990's had become tremendously unpopular, again, especially with this working-class constituency because it was perceived as just a strident, small government party.

And one of the big arguments in our book is that the Republican Party only succeeds when it presents itself as being invested in reforming government and not just in abolishing popular programs. And this was something that Reagan actually did very successfully in his famous first inaugural address where he famously said "Government isn't the solution, government is the problem." He also said, now to be clear it's not my intention to do away with government. I want it to stand by our side not ride on our back, and so on.

And so this was something that the Republican Party was perceived to have gotten away from in the late 90's with the government shutdown, and the Clinton impeachment scandal. There was the perception that it was too hard edged, that it wasn't interested in domestic reform and so on.

And Bush, rightly I think, recognized that the Republican brand had to change and that there had to be more of a focus on domestic policy reform rather than just talking about cuts in Medicare and so on.

But again 9/11 came along. There's a quote, I think it's in David Frum's book about being a speechwriter in the Bush White House where Bush called his speechwriting team and said "Look, from now on after 9/11 this is a wartime presidency and domestic concerns have to be set aside." And I think you can see the effects of that in the Bush domestic agenda. When ideas were pushed without enough planning, enough thought, enough intellectual spadework being put into them and you ended up with bills that didn't work - that tried to address problems that ended up being just laden with pork, the bills on transportation and energy being excellent examples.

And so across the board there was a lost opportunity there, I think. And in your book, by contrast, there's almost no mention of foreign policy. It's very much a domestic policy book. Is that your interest or do you really think that that's where the GOP needs to go?

Reihan: We've attracted some criticism for that but I think that the one core problem with today's Republican party is that because of 9/11 and the changed international environment, a lot of Republicans felt a sense of relief too -we can now change the subject to areas where we're comfortable and areas where we're more broadly popular with the public. For a while the issue was Iraq and then it was just more broadly terrorism, and national security and wiretapping, and a whole host of issues where that tough streak really, really came in handy.

But the problem is that those issues aren't always going to be dominant, in fact they're not dominant right now. The issues that are really are permanently relevant are healthcare, education, and jobs. And as long as the Republicans keep changing the subject and don't talk about these issues, even if they have some relative disadvantage on a particular issue, they're not going to get anywhere.

I think that to what Ross said earlier on, that's something that Bush recognized. He recognized that you have to get to at least even. You have to get to 50/50 on an issue like education to be at least credible. And I think that when you're looking at the foreign policy landscape there are so many conservatives who are very eager to talk about those issues because that's our comfort zone.

Ross and I are both very interested in foreign policy but we saw this kind of cavernous need for [inaudible] on domestic policy. Also there is a lot of room for disagreement. We think that our domestic policy could be in line with Republicans who feel very differently about the Iraq War and the broader war on terrorism. Again thinking of next week in St. Paul, how do you think your ideas are represented by John McCain? He doesn't come off very well in your book.

Ross: Well, I think in the broadest sense, McCain is taking the Republican Party in exactly the right direction by presenting himself as a reform-minded Republican, someone who's willing to break with conservative orthodoxy on certain issues. And I think he's found a few issues in this campaign where he has really been able to exploit Democratic vulnerabilities on domestic policy, with the controversy over the gas tax and energy being the best example.

I think our criticism of him in the book, which I think is born out to some extent in this campaign, is that McCain is a reformer but he's a reformer who's tended to focus on what you might call boutique causes, issues that matter more to sort of the high-minded people who write editorials for newspapers than matter to, frankly, working-class voters. If you look at what he's best known for, it's campaign finance reform, it's anti-tobacco legislation, it's comprehensive immigration reform, it's attempts to fight global warming.

All important issues and all places where he's broken with Republican orthodoxy but not kitchen table issues. Not the nest of issues that Reihan just laid out--education, health care, and jobs--and it's clear that McCain is a little more uncomfortable talking about those kinds of issues.

I think one of the big challenges for him both next week and in the fall campaign is being able to talk plausibly about education, health care, the economy, and so on and not just ceding that terrain to the Democrats.

Reihan: Yes, I think that one way of looking at it is that when you're looking at the reform agenda there is one reform agenda that resonates with the upper middle class and there's another reform agenda that resonates with the lower middle class.I think that McCain, given his background and frankly given his affluence and relative insulation from the problems of everyday Americans--that's something that I think the Democrats have really been playing to lately. He has been in a bit of a bubble where these other issues are just nothing that connects with him on a gut level.

But I think that when you're looking at a lot of Republicans who are running in suburban districts, Republicans who really need those votes of people who feel stress by high gas prices, they're the ones who are going to be driving change in the party. I'm a lot more optimistic that the party will reinvent itself than I was, say, a year ago, because I think that their backs are against a wall.

They saw how the energy crisis issue really connected with a broader narrative. About how the cost of living is impacting mobility for American families and about how the Republican Party oddly enough, actually has a lot of various effective answers concerning the cost of living and the quality of life. So I think that that's something that's going to be very interesting how that'll play out over the next four years. Let's get back to that kitchen table. I think that you said earlier, that if there's a crisis in the working class it's not so much from kind of raw poverty but from insecurity, instability, immobility. Could you explain those factors?

Basically a big part of the argument in our book is that one thing that liberals miss when they talk about these issues, inequality and social immobility especially, is the role that culture and family plays in creating economic instability and immobility and that a not insubstantial portion of the increase in inequality that we've seen in American life over the past few decades has been driven by changes in family structure. The way that the decline of the American family has been much more sharp among working class Americans than it's been among upper middle class Americans so the working class is much more likely to have a higher divorce rate, to have higher out of wedlock birth rates and so on. All of those cultural family-values factors are actually driving broader economic dislocations for the working class.

Part of what we're saying is that Republicans should start with the premise that they already have--that family values matter a great deal in American life--but that they need to broaden the pro-family agenda beyond just talking about gay marriage and abortion and so on. To figuring out well what would it mean for our health care policy to be more pro-family, what would it mean for our tax system to be more pro-family and so forth.

Reihan: There's a wonderful book by Katherine Newman that I recommend to all Amazon readers called Chutes and Ladders. It's a sequel to an earlier book she wrote in which she looked at a group of low-wage employees who were all scrambling to get a job at a fast-food restaurant and then she comes over a decade later to see how they progressed.

What she found was very interesting. She found that actually there was a large number of these folks who had actually entered the middle class but what separated those who entered the middle class and those who did not is that those who entered the middle class had extended families that provided them with the support they needed. For example look after a small kid while they went to school or help them out sort of in the course of finding new opportunities.

That seemed like a very basic thing and it's not the kind of thing that governments can solve by flipping a switch but it is this idea that it's only by having sort of this rich network of connections, particularly family connections that people are able to spring forward. While government can't solve this problem by fiat what government can do is create conditions that make it easier for families to stay together at the margin. That's what we think Republicans ought to focus on when they're talking about poverty policy. Right. When you talk about kind of encouraging those family ties, a lot of your book is a history of the last 80 or so years. You look back on the 50's and the New Deal as promoting very traditional families in a paternalistic or maternalistic way and then there's the sexual revolution. I don't think you're arguing that we turn back the clock and put the genie back in the bottle but I think it's a hard question. How do you promote those strong family ties without doing away with a lot of the freedoms that we have, that people have become accustomed to and fought pretty hard for?

Reihan: I think the central insight of the New Dealers is actually just this idea that culture and economics are tightly interrelated, that when you're looking at family structure it has a real affect on people's economic outcome. We think that the problems which arose in the decades after the New Deal is that a lot of social scientists forgot that central lesson.

They believe that individual rights, which are of course very important to all of us, also meant that we should treat people solely as individuals and should think less about family in terms of poverty policy, forgetting that all individuals are embedded in neighborhoods, they're embedded in context.

When you look at a particular social policy you have to look at how it's going to affect the landscape downstream because of course people are clustered together and they're affecting each other in lots of complicated ways. For example when you're looking at incredibly tough mandatory minimums in drug sentencing laws, sounds great. We're getting tough. The problem is that all of those convicts are coming from a small number of communities. They're making it very hard for lots of women to get married. They're making it very hard for ex-convicts to find economic opportunities in the legitimate world. This creates lots of cycles that are very dangerous and things that conservatives in particular should be attuned to because they understand the central importance of family. That's the kind of thing that we're talking about.

Ross: And also I would say that you know it is absolutely a big challenge. There were real gains made to personal liberty during the sexual revolution. We certainly aren't talking about--there are social conservatives that have this fantasy that women are going to suddenly going to leave the workforce in droves or something. That if you just have the right kind of family values and American life will go back to the Ozzie and Harriet single male breadwinner days.

That's not going to happen and it shouldn't happen but we've reached a point in American life where the pendulum has swung so far in the opposite direction that there isn't just one model of female empowerment that can actually go hand in hand with social conservatism.

If you look at the aspirations of a lot of working class mothers, there are a lot of women who want to stay home full time with their kids. There are a lot of women who want to work full time. Then there's this large group in the middle that wants a more flexible workplace, that wants to be able to take time off when their kids are young, to move in and out of the workplace more easily than they do right now and to not feel imprisoned in a low paying job that they need to pay for daycare for their children and so on.

We think there are things the government can do in terms of changing tax policy. Right now our tax policy has a real bias towards parents who put their kids in daycare rather than parents who want to stay home with their kids. Changing some of those biases, maybe finding ways to make it easier for parents to move in and out of the workforce when their kids are young: there are just things you can do to increase choice beyond what we have right now, that actually will serve socially conservative pro family ends ultimately. Going through your list of your proposals in the second half of your book: there is a health care system based on government insurance, in part, a major federal initiative to subsidize farmers to turn to environmentally friendly production, strengthening unions, of all things (in a different way than traditionally unions), making social security a progressive tax. If I hadn't seen the cover of the book, I might have thought this was a Bill Clinton State of the Union speech. What makes these particularly conservative ideas, and do you think that there's a place for them in the current GOP?

Ross: Well, I think that when you look at each of those ideas, and you drill down a bit, you see that actually there are some conservative ideas. And the central conservative idea is strengthening the role of individuals and families, giving them more choice, more flexibility. So let's look at unions: what we actually talk about is permitting workers to form company unions rather than have this kind of very narrow labor law that we have right now. Clearly, there are lots of workers who don't want to be part of the traditional union but they want to have some representation, they want to have some way of talking about workplace conditions that can give them access to management and sort of promote a more constructive dialogue. I think that's actually an idea that lots of liberals are pretty hostile to. Right.

Ross: Or when you are looking at the health care proposals. The idea is to see to it that we have a freely functioning healthcare marketplace in which competition works not to shift cost, but rather competition works to lower costs and to improve the quality of health care. And you have government as a backstop rather than government as a provider of first resource, to provide catastrophic coverage to be sure that no one actually is going bankrupt.

So this is actually a means of making the market work better than it is right now, rather than trying to impose semantic control from the top. I think that's the basic idea that unites these proposals. They are trying to promote competition. They are trying to promote flexibility. And, yes, they recognize that sometimes you need to spend money in order to make a proposal like this work. But spending money explicitly is a much smarter way of going about it, than saying that, "We are going to regulate you, so that you small business owner has to do x or y."

The money is being spent somewhere at some point by someone. So the question is would you do it transparently and honestly with the tax system. Or you do it by forcing people whose only crime is that they want to actually get people jobs to pay for it and pay for it through the nose. So I think that's the important distinction.

I would also say that, it's partially, frankly, a testament to how little innovative conservative domestic policy thinking there has been lately, that you write a book and people say, "Well, that sounds like something Democrats would say." It's only because Democrats have been monopolizing this conversation for a while now, that proposing things that are slightly outside of conservatives comfort zones makes people assume that "Well, you are just sounding like Barack Obama or you are sounding like Bill Clinton."

Reihan: Absolutely.

Ross: There is no question that there is some overlap. Look, it's a reformist conservative agenda, there's going to be some overlap with what smart reformist liberals have to say. And one of the arguments we make in the book is that "Look, conservatives need to--just as liberals in the 1990's took the smartest conservative ideas and made some of them their own--conservatives need to do that when liberals come up with good ideas. You have to be able to listen to what the smartest people on the other side are saying.

But in a broader sense, I think that the overall architecture of the agenda we are proposing is much more consonant with what's been the conservative tradition in American politics for the last three decades, than what's been the liberal tradition. Just to take the example of means-testing social security--in fact the biggest resistance to making the social security system more progressive, which would involve probably lower payroll taxes for working class voters and then means testing for upper income retirees, has come from the Democrats, because the Democrats don't want to means-test the system.

They want it to remain a massive middle class entitlement, because they think that maintains public support for it. I think if you drill down into the details--and we could go through all the proposals for you to take seriously--but if you drill down in most of the cases, I think the arguments we are making would find a better home in the Republican Party than in the Democratic Party, if the Republican Party were more serious about domestic policy. [laughter] The last thing I wanted to ask is one of the most intriguing of your proposals and the most blue-sky one of them all. It's to, as you put it, "revive the American frontier," which I thought we closed in about 1893. So could you explain what you mean?

Reihan: Sure. The basic idea is that the built environment of the United States has really big effects on family formation. It has a really big effect on our economic horizon. And when you think about our tremendously vast landscape, the rich natural resources, this is an advantage that we have that virtually no advanced industrial democracy has. I mean Canada has it, Australia has it, but they also have a tiny handful of people. [laughs]

We have this tremendous resource, yet it is not always clear that we are using it as intelligently and as effectively as we can. If you look at a lot of our agricultural polices, for example, if you look at the way that we are running down the Ogallala Aquifer, if you look at the way that we are not actually having the agriculture in the most well-watered regions but in the least-watered regions, it's actually causing lots of long-term environmental damage. And it's also not necessarily very rational, and I think that a lot of that irrationality is driven by frankly stupid government policy, and government collusion between agri business and well-connected insiders in the Senate and the House.

So, I think this was probably the most fanciful idea in the book. The idea is, "What will we do if we really had a policy for our landscape, for our natural environment that was in the national interest and not in the interest of a handful of very well connected insiders." We posit that you would see a policy that would actually encourage a more intelligent use of our resources, that would encourage husbanding lots of resources like water where we need it most. Also perhaps facilitate the revival of lots of smaller rural communities, by providing them with the infrastructure they need.

But look, this is definitely not a semantic control idea. This is an idea that says, "Hey, if instead of actually having the structure and subsidy that are chasing after people who are well connected, we actually gave faith in the local community and more flexibility in terms of how to use these resources to improve their quality of life, what would it look like?" So I don't want to say that this is like we are trying to frog march people into the frontier. [laughs]

Ross: The idea of redeveloping the heartland is a blue-sky notion, but the basic idea--and we talk this in the section on America's crumbling transportation infrastructure, and the need to make it easier for workers to telecommute to work rather than commuting in everyday--a crucial part of the American dream is the idea that you are going to be able to have a home of one's own, a place to call one's own, a place to raise one's family.

A conservative party in the United States needs to be dedicated in part to a defense of the sort of suburban and exurban way of life--not necessarily McMansions, but homes where people have yards, driveways, and cars, and raise their kids in what they feel to be a safe environment.

And for this way of life to succeed in the 21st century, given all the energy problems we have, given the increasing population density of the United States and so on, people need to find a way to move further out from these megalopolis cities that are developing along the coast. And for that to happen, you are going to need smarter transportation infrastructure. You are going to need more telecommuting. These are all things that policy makers are only just now starting to think about, if they are thinking about them at all.

But there are issues going forward were I think the Republican Party could have a lot to say about preserving a way of life that's really unique to the United States, and fairly precious.

Reihan: And just one quick thing. Ross and I both live in Washington D.C. And when you look at the wealth boom that has happened in this country from 2000 to the present, its amazing how concentrated it's been in just a handful of counties. It's been in Silicon Valley. It's been in Manhattan. And it's been in three counties surrounding Washington, D.C. That's not a coincidence.

The reason that's happening is because when you look at the government largess it's really is concentrated where government lives. So I think that when you are looking at this mix of policies, it's less about semantic control and it's more about things that would reduce this massive advantage that the government gives to certain areas, so as to create a more level playing field.



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