Ross Douthat is the youngest regular columnist the New York Times has ever featured. He is author, with Reihan Salam, of Grand New Party, and has emerged as one of the current generation's most thoughtful commentators.
ConservativeHome's Ryan Streeter posed 8 questions to him about the future of the GOP and the tough choices that lie ahead.
RS: You’ve recently noted how a long-term trend toward greater liberalism in America reversed itself in Obama’s first 20 months, such that more Americans now identify as conservative than they have in awhile. Have Americans REALLY become more conservative? If so, what do you think that conservatism consists of?
Douthat: I think they've become more conservative in the way that people often become more conservative in hard times -- not ideologically, necessarily, but practically. After a period of excess, there's been a return to a kind of moral narrative of economic life, which emphasizes personal responsibility and the virtues of belt-tightening, and tries to stigmatize speculation and recklessness of all kinds. This spills over into a broader cultural conservatism, which may explain the rising percentage of people calling themselves pro-life, the brief spike in opposition to illegal immigration, the rightward turn on gun control, and some other post-2008 trends. And then obviously it spills over into politics, where the sense that government is spending too much, bailout out the undeserving, and so forth, has created a significant backlash against liberalism. So it's a very real trend, but it's also potentially a temporary one: It was created by a unique set of economic circumstances, and it could be easily reversed if those circumstances change -- or, just as importantly, if conservative political leaders aren't swiftly perceived to be delivering where liberals have failed.
RS: On Nov. 2, the Republicans were the dog that caught the wheel. What do they do now?
Douthat: I think they should be in the business of presenting Barack Obama with hard choices -- by passing legislation, that is, that presents him a choice between governing from the center and pleasing his liberal base. The leaders of Obama's own deficit reduction committee have given Republicans one such opportunity: Judging by the outraged reaction from liberal Democrats, there's potentially room for Republicans to make a deficit deal with the White House that'sgood for conservative priorities and infuriates the left. Similarly, on health care, you could imagine a reform of the health care reform that would put Obama is a politically-difficult position, where he has a choice between vetoing something popular and sensible or signing on to something that conservatives support and liberals oppose.
The difficulty is that the Republican leadership may be afraid of really catching the wheel -- that is, they don't want to give Obama the opportunity to make too many deals with them, because that might change public perceptions of his presidency, helping him move back to the center and thus win re-election in 2012. So Republican policy goals and political incentives may be in tension (as, alas, is often the case).
RS: If you could wave a wand and change one thing about the GOP, what would it be?
Douthat: I suppose I would just create a stronger interest in actual policymaking, among elites and the grassroots alike. American conservatives have a popular mission statement -- limited government, low taxes, strong defense, strong families -- but they tend to just coast on its popularity instead of doing the harder work of figuring out, okay, how do we keep government from growing? What are our policies on health care and energy and education and everything else? How much defense spending do we really need? How can we make sure our tax cuts don't explode the deficit? What public policies lead to stronger families? And the G.O.P.'s base, whether it's Christian conservatives or Tea Partiers or whomever, often doesn't do a good enough job of holding the leadership's feet to the fire and demanding that they get specific. At the moment, this a particular problem with the spending issue: The Republicans just won an election promising to cut government without having to tell people what they'd cut. But it tends to be a problem across every public policy issue: Republicans just don't think as hard as they should about what the actual work of governing entails, and Republican voters too often reward politicians for mouthing slogans rather than substance. It's great that Marco Rubio can give a stirring speech about American exceptionalism, for instance -- but in the long run, actual American exceptionalism will stand or fall on whether Rubio and others like him can figure out a way to bring the budget back into balance. And that requires policy specifics, and hard work, and probably some messy compromises. Rhetoric is necessary, but insufficient.
RS: Which 3 issues should define the 2012 presidential race?
Douthat: How do we reform entitlements to bring the budget into balance? What should we do about health care: If we're repealing Obamacare, what should replace it with, and if we're just reforming Obamacare, what changes should we make? And how do we reckon with the fact that the American economy wasn't delivering for the middle and working classes even before the financial crisis hit? If the Republican nominee has serious answers to those questions, he'll deserve to win. (I'm not saying he will win -- but deserving it is important!)
RS: Imagine that you have just been named the czar of the middle class. What 3 policy changes would you implement to improve the prospects of middle class families in America?
Douthat: First, a reform of the health care reform that moves us in a more market-friendly direction than Obamacare, but also creates some kind of a tax credit/deduction for people who don't get insurance through their employer and can't afford it on the individual market. This is something the Republican leadership hasn't been willing to embrace, but it's a necessity to make the health care system fair and equitable. (Right now, the tax code effectively discriminates against families who don't get employer-provided health care, which is a large and growing share of the population.)
Second, a comprehensive tax reform along the lines that Ramesh Ponnuru and Robert Stein have proposed, which lowers rates and curbs deductions (something most conservatives favor) but also makes the tax code more family friendly, through a larger child tax credit (something some conservatives are still skeptical of). Our tax code creates children as a luxury good rather than a form of investment in the nation's future. If conservatives want to serve the interests of middle-income families -- their natural constituency -- then that needs to change.
Finally, a broad move toward greater competition in the public education system, both in the context of K-12 education, and in public colleges and universities as well. Here's there's increasingly a bipartisan consensus on the value of choice and competition: What's needed is the political will to fight a long war of attrition to reform the public-school bureaucracy.
RS: What is the biggest public policy issue that conservatives don’t seem to want to talk about?
Douthat: Wage stagnation and social immobility. The fact that it probably isn't as easy to rise in America as it used to be. The fact that the middle and working classes struggled to keep up during the Bush years, conservative victories on tax policy notwithstanding. The fact that this country is more stratified than it should be if America's going to remain globally competitive, and if the American dream is going to stay alive.
RS: Let’s imagine Obamacare were repealed tomorrow. What would you recommend we put in its place?
Douthat: Basically, what I recommended above -- a system that caps the current deduction on employer provided health care and uses the savings to create a tax credit for the purchase of insurance that's available to people who don't get health insurance through their employers. There's much more that I would do, but that should be the starting place for a serious conservative reform.
RS: If you had to recommend 2 or 3 books to young conservatives moving to Washington in hope that they’ll make a difference, what would they be?
Douthat: For libertarians, Tim Carney's one-two punch, "The Big Ripoff" and "Obamanomics," both of which explain why free-marketeers should be deeply, deeply skeptical of big business as well as big government.
For social conservatives, Allan Carlson's The American Way, for its account of how the welfare state can be successfully tilted in a pro-family direction, and how socially-conservative public policy played a role in creating the golden age of the two-parent family.
For newly-arrived politicos, Matthew Continetti's The K Street Gang, his look at the gradual corruption of the Gingrich-era revolutionaries, for an account of what not to become.
For everyone, Jonathan Rauch's book Government's End (also titled "Demosclerosis"), which explains why entrenched welfare states are so hard to successfully reform -- for liberals as well as conservatives!