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Q&A With Ross Douthat

By Heather Wilhelm

grand_new_party.jpgRCP: What inspired you to write "Grand New Party"?

DOUTHAT: The initial inspiration came when we were coming off of the 2004 elections. Bush had pulled off a really narrow victory, and yet there was a lot of Republican triumphalism about the whole thing. Reihan and I were looking at that same political landscape, and, rather than reasons to celebrate, we thought there were a lot of significant, deep-seated weaknesses in the Republican brand. Many of these problems had to do with the voters Bush had counted on to bring him through in 2004--working-class Americans.

Unfortunately for us as Republicans, the events that have occurred since we embarked on the project seem to have vindicated our sense of pessimism.

RCP: The political dynamics of the 2008 election are still unfolding. Any recent developments that you wish you could have included in the book?

DOUTHAT:We finished the book before the primary season began, and, looking back, nothing in the primaries really undercut what was already in the book. In fact, a lot of what happened in the primaries tends to support the idea of the struggle for this working-class base. You have the surprising rise of Mike Huckabee, for instance. I think the Huckabee campaign really vindicated the idea that there is a real, solid base for a different kind of Republican. And, of course, you have the example of how the Democratic primary came down to a battle for working-class votes in places like Pennsylvania.

We argue in the book that the 2006 elections sort of left the country teetering between the two parties--and, since then, I have to say I've become more pessimistic about the GOP's chances in 2008. Politically, I think Republicans may be in even worse shape than when we started writing.

RCP: How well do you think John McCain, the GOP nominee, is following your advice for the Republican Party?

DOUTHAT: Well, I'm humble enough not to expect his campaign to be handing out copies of our book as talking points. But the problem for McCain is an interesting one. His identity as a "reformer" is exactly the right brand for this year, for this particular political moment, and for winning the very demographic that our book explores.

The problem is that the particular issues and causes he embraces are ones that appeal more to elites - battling tobacco companies, campaign finance reform, and now, his big deviation from right-wing orthodoxy, the environment. These are not kitchen table issues. They're not health care. They're not education. And I think that's a big problem. The GOP is not going to rebuild their majority by just copying the Democrats on, say, cap and trade.

RCP: What has the book's reception been like in GOP circles?

DOUTHAT: The reception has been surprisingly positive among conservative writers and intellectuals. We're challenging the Republicans on a number of issues, and I'm heartened by the fact that major conservative intellectuals, even if they don't agree with every prescription in the book, agree--in fact, there seems to be a consensus--that it's time to rethink the conservative agenda.

Politically, I don't think the Republican Party is lining up to take our book as a platform for 2008, but hey, these things take time.

RCP: It seems that one of the largest challenges of the book is that many of the problems that you describe as facing the working class - destructive cultural trends, disintegrating families, and the natural sorting that, as you point out, tends to come with a meritocracy - won't or can't be helped much by government policy. How do you address this challenge?

DOUTHAT: That's a good point, and I do think it's a big challenge. I think these sorts of issues can be addressed by government if you're willing to go the route of Europe - addressing familial breakdown by dramatically increasing the size of the welfare state, for instance. That's not what we're trying to do, certainly. We want to advocate solutions that fit within an American limited government framework. We're trying to offer positive incentives and small shifts in policy that, hopefully, can have a big impact.

Welfare reform in the 1990s, for instance, offered fewer perverse incentives and generated some positive results. Welfare reform is always held up as a classic conservative reform, and I think for good reason. Small changes that have broad cultural effects - that's what we were aiming for in the book.

But, back to your point, it is certainly true that there's only so much the government can do to foster cultural change.

RCP: "Grand New Party" also shows a real level of concern regarding inequality in America, particularly on a cultural level. In what areas of American life do you think this inequality is most potent, and what is the potential political impact for 2008?

DOUTHAT: The left-wing narrative about inequality makes it sound like the working class is slipping into poverty; it reflects the "rich get richer and the poor get poorer" theme. We don't share that take, especially since some inequality is a result of economic changes that, broadly speaking, have been good for America.

I think that, in the book, we worry more about inequality insofar as it creates immobility. The danger isn't that working class families can't put food on the table anymore. We're a very affluent nation. The danger, however, is that the crucial part of the American Dream - "My kids can move up; My kids can do better; They can be what they want to be" - is fading. Spiraling inequality creates the dangerous possibility that rising beyond where you're born is, or seems, out of reach. If people lose faith in the American Dream, that creates a crisis for our society as a whole.

RCP: If anyone is devoting time to discussing inequality in 2008, it's the Democrats - but their rhetoric tends to focus on economics. In "Grand New Party," you note that the working class has made real strides economically in the past four decades. With this is in mind, do you think that the economic narrative will have a real impact in November?

DOUTHAT: Yes, I think it might. We may not be in a recession, but we're certainly teetering on the edge of one. When you look at the Democratic message, I think the most appealing elements are more likely to focus on the cost of living than on inciting class envy. Obviously, there's some class warfare woven in, with attacks on CEOs and corporations, for instance, but ultimately, the resonance of the message has to do with the economic downturn.

Part of our argument is that these social trends of inequality do have economic consequences. The consequence might not be poverty, but it might be a real sense of insecurity.

RCP: In the book, you critique President Bush for wasting political capital on Social Security reform - a reform that would radically transform entitlements for the better and embraces the type of "hand up, not hand out" methodology of "Grand New Party." Why do you think this is an unrealistic goal?

DOUTHAT: Reihan and I talk critically about what Bush did, but we don't really talk about the long-term future of Social Security reform. I agree that it is something that the Republicans will definitely want to tackle down the road. But the timing wasn't right in 2004. There's an interesting parallel to Bill Clinton here. He promised health care reform and welfare reform, and decided to tackle health care first. It would have been much better for him to pursue welfare reform first. He needed to make Americans trust Democrats with government again. With Bush, similarly, it would have been much better for him to tackle health care or tax reform before launching into Social Security, because Americans always worry that Republicans can't be trusted with New Deal programs.

The moment to do Social Security reform, when you think about it, was in the late 1990s when the stock market was booming. When Bush tried to do it, it wasn't that his ideas were terrible. It's that the political judgment was way off, as was the timing.

RCP: The Democrats are running with what could be their most left-wing candidate in decades, and as such, are pretty much ignoring your centrist advice. How do you think that will impact their showing in 2008?

DOUTHAT: I think Barack Obama is very politically astute on this front. He manages to play it both ways. He can sound very left wing on economic policy, but he also has many centrist advisors, particularly on economic issues.

I think the Obama approach is a gamble, but I think it's one that Democrats are smart to take. They're never going to have a better year than 2008. The Republican Party is wildly unpopular, and we've also reached a point where the country has moved to the left on economic issues. This moment may not last, so it makes sense to try to seize it. Sure, it might have been safer for Obama to run a more centrist campaign, but this approach could also reap tremendous dividends for the Democrats.

RCP: Any predictions for the November election?

DOUTHAT: My prediction is that the Democrats marginally increase majorities in the House and Senate, and that Obama will beat McCain by 3-5 percentage points.

Oh, and by the way, in case I'm wrong - bury this on election day, will you?

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