Foreign Affairs Focus: The Republican Party With Reihan Salam

As the Republican presidential candidates continue to debate social and fiscal issues, Foreign Affairs Managing Editor Jonathan Tepperman and author Reihan Salam discuss political polarization in America, the importance of candidates' styles and cultural ideologies, how independent voters identify with parties, and how campaign finance regulation has changed elections in the United States.

Salam's article for the new issue Foreign Affairs, "The Missing Middle in American Politics," is available here.


Jonathan Tepperman: Hi, I am Jonathan Tepperman, Managing Editor of Foreign Affairs, welcome to Foreign Affairs Focus. Our guest today is Reihan Salam, the prolific journalist and author, most recently author of a piece in the upcoming March/April edition of Foreign Affairs called "The Missing Middle in American Politics: How Moderate Republicans became Extinct." So Reihan, how did moderate Republicans become extinct?
Reihan Salam:  Well, there are a lot of different pieces to the story. Geoffrey Kabaservice emphasizes that fact that the modern Republican movement never really coalesced into a movement. And he suggests that was a big reason why the conservatives overtook them. I would suggest that a big part of the story was actually campaign finance regulations, a story that Kabaservice didn't discuss in any great detail in his book.
Tepperman:  You focus a great deal in the piece on the differences between George Romney, who you take as your paragon as the typical 60s progressive republican moderate, and his son. Of course, there is a lot of controversy over what kind of Republican Mitt is exactly. Do you take him as a sign, or his evolutions say in the last five-ten years that moderate Republicans can no longer exist or gain traction in the party?
Salam:  Well, I think that much depends on how we use the term moderate, so for example these latter day Republican moderates tended to emphasize their moderate views on "social" issues. So if you were a pro-choice Republican, if you are a Republican who is comfortable with something like same-sex marriage, you might characterize yourself as a moderate despite having very conservative views on a panoply of other issues. So in that sense, when you look at someone like Mitt Romney, he was someone who did express liberal views on a variety of hot button social issues back then. And that was not uncommon for New England Republicans at the time.
Tepperman: When you at  "at the time" you're speaking of what, the mid to late 90s?

Salam: Right. At the mid to late 90s, when he first ran for public office and then when he ran for Governor of Massachusetts in 2002, he actually managed to defeat his Democratic opponent in part because she had only recently started characterizing herself as pro choice where as he had a longer pro-choice record in public life. So that is one of the ironies of that race.
Tepperman: So why has Mitt had to move to the right?
Salam: Well, I wouldn't say he has had to move. It could be sort of a change in conviction sort of among other things but I would say the Republican party itself is a much more homogeneous political movement that it had been before, ideologically and otherwise. And one of those reasons is kind of a broader polarization of the American electorate that reflects the mobility of the population. And also, just the fact that you have a more educated electorate now that you did some decades ago. A more educated electorate might demand more responsive politicians.

Tepperman:  One could argue that Romney's continued strength in the primaries suggests in fact that the Republican electorate has a greater appetite for moderates then seemed early in the race. Do you feel that's the case or not?

Salam:  It's hard to say. One of the structural problems is that actually a very large number of Americans identify as conservatives. So when you look at...
Tepperman:  How big when you say large?
Salam:  I'd say it's in the neighborhood of low to mid thirties? And because of that, you also have a larger number of Americans who don't identify with either major political party. So you have this growing number of independents. Now that means that the people who identify as Republicans are very likely to also identify as conservatives. Whereas among Democrats, the number of folks who identify as ideological liberals is quite a bit smaller than the number who identify as ideological conservatives. Which means the Democratic Party has to be more of a coalition party, and that is actually a danger when Republicans need to reach out beyond their conservative base to win a general election. So I'd say that a lot of the people who might be inclined to lean toward a Republican are not actually necessarily participating in Republican primaries.
Tepperman:  But the fact that the base as it were, the people who vote in primaries continue to return strong results for Romney, not delivering a knock out blow but allowing him to stay in this, does it not suggest that there is something like an analog of a Kerry base in the Republican party, a pretty strong constituency who will vote for someone they thing that the general electorate will support as opposed to a true conservative.

Salam:  I think that's certainly fair to say. I think there is a lot of concern about electability. Now whether or not that means there is a desire for a moderate candidate as such that is a separate question. I would also suggest that a lot of it depends on affect. So for example, John Huntsman was a candidate who in many respects had quiet a conservative record as the Governor of Utah, yet he didn't seem like someone who was in line culturally and otherwise with what you might describe as the conservative tribe. And because of that, he was seen as somewhat a less trustworthy figure. Whereas there are other political figures in the political right who make all kinds of deviations and departures from what we might think of as conservative ideological orthodoxy, yet who are allowed to do so because they are seen as being in line with conservative tribe.
Tepperman:  So it's about style as much as it's about substance?
Salam:  I think that it's absolutely about style to some degree because style serves as a proxy for people. When you look at all these issues its very hard to tell, hard to predict, how people react to new and changing circumstances. George W. Bush certainly reacted to new and changing circumstances in ways that many of his conservative supporters would have found discomforting. That's part of why these symbols, these signals, of who matters to you most are really important in finding a candidate.
Tepperman:  Do you think that this demand for orthodoxy in form if not in all content will hurt the party in the general election?
Salam: It may well hurt the party but I will also say that it's pervasive.  I'd say that it's increasingly true on the Democratic side as well. So when you think of campaign finance regulation one thing that happened, between the heyday of the moderates and now is that back in those days a wealthy person could write a large check. That meant you didn't need to appeal to small dollar donors, well, the way you appeal to get people to actually write checks rather than just show up to vote is often to use apocalyptic rhetoric. Now, on the Democratic side that started a change actually after McCain-Feingold [Act] when it was harder for labor unions to write soft money donations to the political parties. And so now, it is far more difficult for a culturally conservative Democrat to get elected in a similar vein so that dynamic is very similar on both sides and so you are dealing with a much smaller universe of swing voters that you were before.
Tepperman:  Now this suggests that you are quiet pessimistic about the trend. You suggest at the end of your piece however that you can envision a resurgence of moderates within the Republican Party. Which is it for you?
Salam: Well I think, it's not so much a matter of optimism or pessimism. It's trying to look at a situation in a coolly rational way and see what are we dealing with. There are a lot of forces that are encouraging polarization. On the other hand, there are a certain structural problems that will require a certain level of suppleness deftness and will require people to abandon their ideological commitments. Even if they believe these ideological commitments are entirely sound-so if some sort of debt crisis were to emerge in the United States over the coming decade the alternative is either you have some kind of managed default that is led by America's creditors-that is to say a series of Arab and Muslim oil-rich states in the Gulf and China and other states that we don't necessarily want to submit our financial decision making to-or you find some kind of compromise, and my optimism is that we are going to find some way to deal with these larger pumps of fiscal consolidation, etc., before that. I would also say that there is a lot of good, rigorous thinking on the political right now. More, I would argue, that what we saw in the Bush years.
Tepperman:  Reihan, that's a great note for us to end on, thanks so much for talking to us.
Salam:  Thank you.

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