ALISON STEWART, host:
Five weeks and counting until the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis. At that Grand Old Party will be some young Republicans, some of whom want to change the course of their chosen political party. A new book called "Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream," well, it was written by a pair of 20-somethings, Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam. BPP swing host Mike Pesca spoke with Reihan Salam last week.
(Soundbite of reverse playback)
MIKE PESCA: It seems to me that there is a pattern, and the books that come out are directly influenced by the last election. So, after 2004, John Kerry did not beat George Bush and we were made to answer "What's The Matter with Kansas," and we were made to think about things like how Republicans had mastered micro-targeting, and it just seemed, if you looked at the publishing industry, that Democrats were never going to make it. Then, after the 2006 midterm we have had a few books like yours, kind of positing or, you know, the general thesis is that Republicans are really in for a tough time. Do you see it as being dictated by the election cycles at all?
Mr. REIHAN SALAM (Coauthor, "Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream"): Absolutely not. Honestly, there are a lot of books like that, but the thing is that this idea occurred to me, you know, before 2004, when I didn't want President Bush to win reelection because I was so distressed with what was happening with the party. But it really hit me in the gut when I was watching President Bush's second inaugural address. Here's a guy who won reelection basically by winning over, you know, married, suburban moms in Ohio who were struggling to get by, and then what is he talking about?
He's making the entire world democratic. OK, fair enough, it's a good goal. We all care about that. And then about immigration reform, again, important issue, but not something that connects with those voters, and then talking about social-security reform, in a time when people are really panicked about whether or not they're even going to have their pensions. They're panicked about, you know, their economic well-being. They have these really intense anxieties.
They connected with Bush on a personal level, and this was the agenda he was giving them? So, I thought, you know what, even if they look like they're on top of the world in 2004, they're going to come in for a very hard landing, and my friend Ross Douthat, my coauthor, felt the same way and we were like, you know, we've got to do something. We've got to say something now before it gets too far.
PESCA: And that question of mine was a little bit of a set up, because I do have your article from 2005 in front of me, which obviously predated the 2006 elections, where you asked - you call it the party of Sam's Club, isn't it that time that Republicans did something for their voters? So, when you were watching the first - the second inaugural, what President Bush did, how he said, I've earned some political capital and I'm going to spend it on social-security privatization, did you put your head in your hands and just say, no, no, no, no, no? Or did you say, good, I want you to screw it up as best as you can, because until we have a calamity, we're not going to have a shake out?
Mr. SALAM: Mike, you've basically asked me the toughest possible question you could ask because, you know, I'm a little bit of an oddball in the sense that, you know, I always think the important thing is for your side to get things right, and that sometimes means that you're going to have to suffer some reversals, some losses. So, I know that most of my fellow conservatives don't feel this way, but that certainly was my gut instinct.
You know what? They're going to need to pay for this, somehow. That's not to say that I wanted the Republicans to lose in 2006, but there was a part of me that felt, you know, they're finally going to get it. They're finally going to see how you can't keep changing the subject from healthcare, education, and jobs. You have to talk about where the country is. You have to meet those needs.
PESCA: Now, the subtitle of your book tells me that your talk about how Republicans can win the working class and save the American dream. Your article talks about Sam's Club, which are, you know, you define as working-class voters, voters with aspirations who want to live in nice houses and cul-de-sacs, but might not have college degrees. Now, some people say, you know, how a party will win is to talk to certain religious groups. Other people focus on geography, you know, "Whistling Past Dixie," Democrats will win without the South. Why do you think it was so important to talk about the strength of the party that you favor in terms of class? Why was it a class-driven argument at its base?
Mr. SALAM: Well, it's because you have one issue where Republican elites think the party is one thing, and they think about one set of issues, but they don't see that when you're looking at when Republicans do well, they've done well by appealing to these non-college-educated voters, and you know, these are voters who, some of whom are pretty affluent, some of whom are struggling. Well, what they all have in common is the sense that, you know, look, my kids are going to need more in the way of education. They're going to need more in the way of capital in order to make their way in the economy now, because that's different from the, you know, the age when you could get a solid factory job, you could get a solid, you know, professional gig, even with only a couple years of college or no college at all.
So, a lot of, you know, Sam's Club voters are actually people who are successful entrepreneurs, say, but they don't feel that confidence that their kids are going to experience the same economy they experienced. It's going to be different. It's going to be a lot tougher. So, education is really important to this picture, and I think that, you know, that's the backbone of the Republican Party's strength. Yet, they don't really focus on the actual needs of these folks, although they do address a lot of their cultural anxieties.
PESCA: Now, you talk about, there are some issues that motivate voters that you think the Republicans should own. They should be able to appeal to voters who are what some demographers call value voters, but I'd like you to get into that a little bit, but also I think I detected, but tell me if I'm wrong, in your book, a little bit of picking and choosing, where you said, yes, it's fine to appeal to voters who are motivated by the gay-rights issue, but at no point did you say and it's also OK to appeal to voters who are uncomfortable with Muslims, for instance.
Mr. SALAM: You know, it's interesting you say that. We actually don't talk about gay marriage at all in the book, and the reason we don't talk about it is that my coauthor and I don't see entirely eye-to-eye on the issue. I personally think that same-sex marriage should be legal. So, this definitely places me outside the reservation among conservatives. I also really believe that it should be a federal issue, an issue that's handled by the states, handled in the context of local democracy.
I don't think it should generally be handled by the courts. But you know, we didn't agree on that, but we both agree that when you're looking at the anxiety about marriage, and gay marriage was a small piece of that, it's really not about gays and lesbians. It really is about family breakdown and who's really experiencing family breakdown and who's not. And the truth is that it's working-class people who are bearing the brunt of it. It's not the upper-middle class, who are still marrying at Ozzie and Harriet rates. It's still the '50s for people who are relatively affluent.
PESCA: You grew up in Brooklyn, right?
Mr. SALAM: Sure did.
PESCA: I grew up nearby. And whenever I hear a politician saying "breakdown of the family," I kind of close my ears because I think he's speaking code for a gay-rights argument that I'm not particularly receptive to, you know, being anti-gay or something like that.
Mr. SALAM: Yeah.
PESCA: However, when you describe it to me, I'm like, actually, there is substance to the phrase "breakdown of the family." So, rhetorically, do you think that maybe Republican politicians should be more careful of how they, you know, talk about family values, to make explicit that they're not just talking about gay rights?
Mr. SALAM: I think that would do a lot of good if they did do that. I mean, I also think that the picture on these social issues is going to change because, you know, I'm 28-years-old, and the folks who are younger than me and around my age feel very differently about gay rights. Now, they actually tend to feel - they tend to be pretty conservative on issues like abortion. But I think you're dead on about that. And to me, actually, it relates to the whole welfare-reform debate because, you know, to me to the interesting thing is that you didn't have a situation, pre-welfare reform, where mothers were just lazing around and collecting checks. They were working. The problem was it was illegal for them to work and still get the benefits they needed for their families.
So, what the welfare reform did is help people, you know, stay honest and give them the tools they needed, because the truth is that those mothers who were struggling at the edge of poverty were heroes. And I think that they had a lot of conservative values and trying to keep their families together to the best of their ability. But the system was working against them. So, the great, you know, conservative reform then, and conservatives have a lot to learn now from what they accomplished at that time, is, you know, make sure that these programs are working in tune with the moral values of the country and also with those communities that we're supposed to be helping.
PESCA: What do you think of - what do you make of this current presidential election? Do you think John McCain is a guy who embodies your ideals enough? And maybe I'll ask you to play a prognosticator, too.
Mr. SALAM: You know, I am a great admirer of John McCain. But there's a real fundamental problem with the guy and his politics. And it's that, on one level he's the perfect candidate. He's not your average Republican. He's someone who's broken with his party. He's someone who's heterodox. He's someone's who's embraced creative solutions from time to time. But the issues that he seems to care about most on the domestic front are issues like campaign-finance regulation, cap and trade. These issues that don't really connect at the gut level with working-class voters.
But then get him to talk about healthcare and education and jobs, he just doesn't seem to get it. He doesn't seem to understand where those needs are coming from. So, I think that, you know, he's a reformer, but he's the wrong kind of reformer for the Republican Party going forward. The reason I support him is because foreign policy. I support him pretty enthusiastically. But I do not believe that he represents the future of the Republican Party. I think he represents a kind of weird, you know, thing that, you know, may or may not work in 2008. But had he won in 2000, he could have remade the Republican Party in an amazing way. But that opportunity was lost.
MIKE: Reihan Salam is one of the authors of "Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream." He's also an associate editor at the Atlantic. Thank you very much.
Mr. SALAM: Thank you, Mike.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.