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Opinion | What a More Responsible Republican Party Would Look Like


ezra klein

I’m Ezra Klein, and this is “The Ezra Klein Show.” [MUSIC PLAYING]

So before we begin today, we are still looking for an associate producer on the show. That is a position which requires two years of audio experience, but it’s going to be involved in everything from researching guests, to booking, to transcripts, to cutting and editing episodes. If that sounds like something you have the experience for and want to do, we have the listing right now in the show description. So go check it out. Today’s episode is about one of the core obsessions, or themes, that this show is going to have. And that is how do we get — can we even get a more responsible Republican Party? And one way I define that is, a Republican Party that is more centered around an actual governing agenda. The Republican Party we actually have, has spun off too much to culture war and grievance politics, as, depending on how you want to frame it, a distraction from an absence of consensus on more direct policies that would improve the lived economic lives of the voters. Or another way of looking at it is, it’s trying to distract from opposition to those policies. But there are Republicans who are trying to diagnose the problem, who are trying to push the party back in a more policy-centric direction and trying to push the party, also towards a policy-centric direction that, I think, would be healthier. Towards a policy direction that would make it more reasonable for Republicans to say they are actually a working person’s party, or as you’ll hear in this, appearance party. One of those Republicans is Ramesh Ponnuru. Ramesh is senior editor at The National Review. He’s a columnist at Bloomberg View, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Somebody I don’t always agree with, but I always try and read and listen to. As always, my email is ezrakleinshow@nytimes.com. Here’s, Ramesh.

So let me start here. If Republicans had passed another big COVID stimulus, prior to November, maybe one as Donald Trump wanted with $2,000 checks, do you think Trump wins a second term and Republicans keep the Senate?

ramesh ponnuru

The race even in retrospect, is a little odd, because in one way it was not tight. It was a more comfortable margin for Biden than say, the 2000 race for the Republicans. But at the same time you look at three states where if you switched what, 22,000 votes in the right places, Trump would have gotten the election kicked into the house, where Republicans would have had a majority of state delegations and he would then have won. So in that sense it was pretty tight, and you do have to look at small things that could have made a difference. So, even though most people’s opinions were pretty baked in and there wasn’t a whole lot of fluctuation in public opinion about Donald Trump throughout his entire presidency. I think that could have made a difference. Definitely could have made a difference in the Senate. There are a number of other things that you could point to like, what if Trump’s policies on COVID had been basically the same, but he just carried on a little bit less like a maniac about it, had done the bare minimum of being a reassuring figure when he spoke about it? What if he hadn’t discouraged mail-in voting? That might have been enough.

ezra klein

The reason I’m interested in this counterfactual — to your point, there are many things Donald Trump could have done differently. But many of them he didn’t want to do differently. He didn’t want to stop being a maniac on Twitter, he didn’t want to stop giving his press conferences. But this is one where Donald Trump, certainly at times, wanted to do a bigger stimulus and it seemed like the Republican Party’s incentives were aligned to do it. But they didn’t. So why do you think they didn’t? Why didn’t Mitch McConnell and Trump come together on this one given their electoral interests?

ramesh ponnuru

Yeah, that is a really interesting question. It is certainly true that Trump, from time to time talked about, we need a stimulus and we’re better off going big, and I want the $2,000 checks. But he didn’t have in him the ability to engage in a policy question in a sustained way and negotiate with people on the Hill. That just wasn’t something that he displayed at any point in his presidency. He didn’t do a lot of the traditional job of a president and instead, took on the mantle of the internet commenter-in-chief on his own presidency. And that’s one of the things that was really bizarre about this. Because, I think, there’s absolutely no question that if Trump had engaged in August and September and said, I want $2,000 checks, and made this a test of Republican support for him, he would have gotten those $2,000 checks. And there would have been some grumbling and there would have been some Republicans who voted against it, but he would have had it. He would have had the bulk of Republicans, he would have had a lot of Democrats, who would have just been with him on the policy question. And I think you have to look at psychological, more than political explanations, for why Trump did that. Now the question for McConnell, I think, is a little bit different. And I’ve never had a clear handle on that. I do think there’s an assumption that the legislation wouldn’t actually have any real world effects that you need to care about. That it’s just a political game, which, I think, was actually a pretty widespread assumption among Republicans. And then there’s just the, we don’t want to spend money, we’ll spend money if we have to, but it’s not our comfort zone.

ezra klein

I want to key in on that assumption that passing a big COVID relief bill would have just been a political game, because one of your big themes in pieces you’ve been writing recently, is that the Republican Party has detached itself from policy, from putting forward proactive agendas, and turned to focus on cultural grievance and conservative entertainment. Why do you think that’s happened?

ramesh ponnuru

I mean, I think, it’s hard to deny that it has happened. You can certainly see that in the way Republicans have conducted recent elections and not just in the way that the Republican politicians have behaved, but the way the various factions of the party have responded to that. It’s not as though you’ve got significant actors in the Republican Party who are demanding that Republicans run different kinds of campaigns that have more of a policy focus on it. And I think to a large extent, Republican voters are behind this. The Republican voters themselves have become post-policy. So, it’s not as though Republican politicians are being punished for not running on policy agendas and then delivering on those agendas. If anything, they feel as though they’re being rewarded for doing something different. Just look over the course of the last 30 years, right? So Republicans in 1994 run on a contract with America, which has granted quite a lot of slogans in there. But there is some policy substance to it. There is a felt need to say we have some ideas about what we want to do if we take power. And then in the Obama years, the opposition party is much, much less eager to run on that idea-based platform. There’s a deliberate decision not to have an Obamacare replacement plan in the run up to the 2014 elections, for example. And then by the time you’re in the Trump Administration, Republicans really only attempt two major pieces of legislation, and then call it a day when the health care replacement fails and the tax cut doesn’t seem to yield any political returns. Republicans basically draw the lesson, “Well, I guess it’s a waste of time to do anything on policy.” And so they campaign in 2018 saying, or rather not saying, “Look, if you give us continued control of Congress and the White House, we’re going to do a couple of things for you.” And in 2020, Trump doesn’t campaign on the basis of, here’s what I’m going to do in my second term, and Republican senators and House members don’t campaign on, give us back control the government so we can do x, y, and z. And look, I’m somebody whose been arguing for years that conservatives should have that kind of an agenda. But the Republicans are in decent political health without having done any of that kind of work. And so, I think that there is an inclination on their part to just keep doing it. But among the reasons why that is still worth pushing back on is that at some point, if you’re involved in politics and interested in office, it’s because you want to accomplish something.

ezra klein

Well, I’m actually not sure that’s true for everyone. Sometimes people are here because they want to become Twitter celebrities, which I think has actually become a more common route in the Republican congressional conference. But you hit something there that I think is really deep that I want to focus on for a minute, which is, who controls the Republican Party? And I think if you talk to a liberal about this five years ago, 10 years ago, the model they have of the Republican Party is it is controlled by corporations, the Chamber of Commerce. That whatever those players want, they get. And I don’t think that’s entirely wrong even now. They got their tax cuts, even after Donald Trump ran as a quasi-populist. There was the Obamacare repeal effort. So the congressional wing of the Republican Party has still been pretty responsive there. But what that wing of the party wants is pretty different than what the base of the party wants. The base of the party does not want the kinds of immigration reforms the Chamber of Commerce wants. The base of the party does want a lot more cultural grievance fighting than the Chamber of Commerce wants. And I think a reasonable model of the Republican Party over the past 10 years is that those institutional players have not dissolved, but they’re weakening. And the base is getting much more of what it wants and there’s actually a pretty big conflict between what the two sides want. And so, where the Republican Party is going right now is a mush. Do you think that’s right?

ramesh ponnuru

Well, the way I’ve thought about it is that Trump exploded an old Republican synthesis program and agenda, without really replacing it with anything coherent and fleshed out. So, the Republicans are left in a state of disorientation and don’t really know what they stand for and are feeling their way forward in that respect. The divergence you’re talking about between, let’s say, the donor base and the voting base of the Republican Party, there’s always been a difference, as there is in the Democratic Party. I think that divergence got a little bit wider during the Obama years. And it’s not just a matter of interest groups within the Republican Party. I think it’s also intellectually, the Republican agenda became further and further detached from reality, because it wasn’t adapting with the times and it was still keyed towards the circumstances of America in 1981. So, I go on this tangent a little bit, because there is this tendency, sometimes, to think of the history of conservatism as though Obama-era conservatism is the way it was always. But in some ways that extremely anti-government and somewhat rigid and doctrinaire economic libertarianism was unusual for the Republican Party. It wasn’t the way the party was under Reagan, or under George W. Bush. And so, in some ways, Trump was a correction to an aberration that got the party back in an odd way towards more of its historical self definition. I mean, the Ryan moment, the Paul Ryan moment, where the Republican Party was about makers not takers and was all in on an entitlement reform. I mean, that wasn’t the way the Republican Party was between 1981 and 2008, right? I mean, Reagan explicitly said basically, he wasn’t going to do much on entitlements and didn’t. And then George W Bush actually expanded in entitlements, with the Medicare drug benefit and obviously was a big government guy in general. And so, the Republican Party had gone down a little bit of an ideological cul-de-sac, during the Obama years. One of the reasons why that old Republican Party blew up, was because it had become such a brittle orthodoxy, that had gotten so far detached from political reality. It was not where voters at large were. And it turned out it wasn’t even where Republican base voters were, where the Republican electorate was. So and you saw this in 2016, right? I mean, you’d have these ads from the Club for Growth. Trump has said this about health care and Trump said that about taxes and he’s done this on trade. And there were a bunch of Republican primary voters who actively liked what Trump was saying on those issues. And then there was another group of Republican voters who just didn’t care, right? They weren’t so excited about any of those old Republican agenda items, that they held it against him that he wasn’t for them.

ezra klein

I’ve heard you make this argument on another podcast, I think was on 5:38, where you argued that a lot of 2024 hopefuls have learned the wrong lesson from Trump in 2016. That Trump won largely because he was seen as a moderate in the party, not because he just played to the base. That’s a challenging argument to hear at this moment, so give it to me in more detail.

ramesh ponnuru

Yeah well, I’ll tell you. I underestimated Trump in 2015 because I thought of him as the latest flavor of the month of extreme right, far right candidates. Or of candidates for those Republican primary voters who described themselves to pollsters as “very conservative.” I made this point. I have a really embarrassing column in retrospect from mid-2015 where I said, “Don’t worry about Trump.” Because I was like, look at all these people who’ve come and gone before like the Herman Cains and Michele Bachmanns of the world. This segment of the party never unites around a candidate and never dominates the Republican presidential primaries for various reasons. And the Republican presidential primary after Reagan has always gone to somebody at the center of the party, or on the left of the party, and not to anybody on the right of the party, because these very conservative voters split. They split on religious grounds, they split economic versus social conservatives, they split how pragmatic they’re willing to be, and somebody comes up on the middle and left of the party and consolidates. The basic structural theory about how the Republican Party worked turned out to be correct, but I was wrong in that Trump ended up being that guy. Trump is the guy who ends up dominating among Republican voters who describe themselves as “moderate” and maybe the crucial constituency Republican voters who described themselves as, ‘somewhat conservative.” And he actually does much worse in general among those voters who describe themselves as “very conservative.” Now, we all have a distorted picture of this because of some obvious aspects of Trump, the Trump’s racial politics, and Trump’s nationalism, being the key aspect to this. But then also, because over the course of his presidency it was the very conservatives who became his strongest supporters, and the Republicans who defected, or became lukewarm supporters, were the moderate Republicans. But that wasn’t the way it was all through 2016. And to get back to the question you’re raising, it does strike me that a lot of the people who are trying to be Trumpist candidates, for the post-Trump party, whether it’s Senator Cotton or Hawley or Cruz or Rubio. They seem to be under the impression that you can build a successful intra-party coalition from the right, in. And maybe they’re right. They’re professional politicians and I’m not. But even with the bizarre campaign of 2016, it has not worked for any post-1984 Republican presidential candidate.

ezra klein

One thing I think about when trying to evaluate Donald Trump’s success and the lessons of it is that those of us, and this describes you and me, who are policy wonks by inclination and trade, have a tendency to pick through Trumpism and find the policy threads. And so, he did a lot of things in the 2016 campaign made a lot of comments that were more moderate, right? He wasn’t going to cut entitlements. He’s going to raise taxes on people like himself. He was to give everybody beautiful, generous, healthcare. And then there are a number of Republicans who are trying to build a post-Trump, Trumpism, around his policies. And even people who were one time critics of him, like Lindsey Graham, has said, what we need to do is keep Donald Trump’s policies and just move forward from there. But I do think one question is, whether or not — what Donald Trump really understood, was that policy communication wasn’t very important. And that what is uniting Republicans right now at the core of the energy in the party, is a sense of cultural threat. And you could describe that in a lot of different ways and it comes together in different ways. It’s racial change, right, demographic change. It’s secularization in society. He did do very well among evangelical voters, in general, and they stayed with him in a very loyal way through 2020. And this goes to this question, can you force policy on the Republican Party, on a Republican base, that is not primarily worried about the things policy wonks worry about? Like I noticed at CPAC this year, the big conservative conference, its theme is uncanceled America. Right, and say what you will, about your ideas of cancel culture or not cancel culture. Its theme is not health care, the economy, coronavirus, climate change. Like all of these things where I could come up with a bunch of policy ideas, even from the right, to do something about them. It seems cancellation — there’s a lot of Republican energy around the 1619 Project at The New York Times — is that where the energy is and what happens if the energy is on things that really don’t have policy solutions?

ramesh ponnuru

I did this interview with Senator Cotton and it had been set up as a thing on cancel culture, which is fine, and great, and there’s a lot of interesting stuff to say about it. But I did say, I did ask, “So OK, if this is like this huge problem in America, what are you as the Senator going to do about it?” And he didn’t have much of an answer to that. And I’m not sure that there really is much of an answer, other than, well, I’m just going to keep saying what I’m saying and I’m in this position where I depend on voters rather than these cultural institutions and so, I have this freedom. Which I mean, that’s actually not a terrible answer to the question, but it’s not a completely satisfying answer to the question either. Let me back up a second. There is some policy substance that was important to Trump. Trump, whether because he was a brilliant strategist, or because he had a certain cunning sense of these things. He did, I think, understand the red lines in the Republican Party. Because sometimes you hear people saying, well, Republicans are for Trump. Whatever he does they they’d go with him. He could do anything. He could shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue. OK, fine. He can do lots of things. He proved that he could do lots of things and still retain Republican support. But he didn’t try to do some things like stick with his old pro-choice position on abortion, or really stick to his occasional advocacy of gun control, or tax increases. If he did that, I think, you would have found that there were large numbers of Republican voters who cared about those particular issues. And so we have to stick with them on those. You have to stick with them on religious liberty and lots of other stuff. Republican voters, don’t in large numbers, have strong views on trade and he could do what he wanted to do on that. So that was one element of policy substance to Trump, or to Trumpism. A second, he was very good at using a policy issue to communicate a value, or communicate something he wanted people to know about him. Whether it’s, I’m strong, or I’m on your side, I’m tough, et cetera. So, the wall being an aspect of that. The trade stuff being an aspect of that, too. Maybe he could have found different policies, more serious policies, more effective ones that would have communicated some of the same things, but there is some policy substance there. The thing about Senator Graham saying, we need Trump’s policies, but presumably not some of Trump’s personality, or Trump’s negatives. The record of the Trump administration was such a grab bag of Trump’s distinctive nationalist policies, and just old line Republican stuff, and a little bit of, frankly, a little bit of the reform conservative stuff that I was pushing, among many others for a few years. It’s a grab bag, right? So, different people who say that, oh, it’s Trump’s policies. They mean totally different things by that, right? Lindsey Graham might mean tax cuts when he is talking about that. And Senator Cotton might be talking about a crack down on illegal immigration. And one of the problems that Republicans have right now is that every argument inside the party ends up being sucked into the vortex of an argument about Trump, and Trump personally, Trump’s personality, and so forth. And he’s paralyzed the Republican policy debate for that reason. And the fact that there’s so little coherence to Trump and to his record has helped contribute to that as well. [MUSIC PLAYING]

ezra klein

I’ve been struck that one of the most interesting populist ideas to come out from the Republican, at least, Senate caucus, after the election, was not from one of the post-Trump populist , players like Hawley or Cotton, but it was from Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican nominee. And he’s got this idea, which, I think, is genuinely exciting and possibly bipartisan, for a child allowance. But I haven’t seen even one other Republican Senator endorse it. So can you walk me through the idea first and then the debate over it on the right?

ramesh ponnuru

So, Romney’s idea is for a child allowance, which is a monthly payment, to nearly all parents in the US for each child that they have. If I remember correctly, it’s between the age of zero and six, it would be $4,200 a year. And then thereafter, until they’re 17, $3,300 a year.

ezra klein

And is that per child?

ramesh ponnuru

Per child, that’s right.

ezra klein

And then there’s a cap on it, as I remember. It’s something like basically after four children, it stops.

ramesh ponnuru

Right, and there’s also an income cap where it starts phasing out if you’re a single filer making more than $200,000, or a married filer making more than $400,000. Which is to say it covers nearly everybody in it. It’s a flat benefit. Would replace the existing child credit and would replace some other programs like, temporary assistance for needy families, which is the main program that used to be called welfare. But it’s a much smaller program than it used to be with a much smaller caseload. And he’d also get rid altogether of the tax deduction for state and local taxes that you can apply on your federal tax return. So this would all be, at least in theory, I mean, some of it has to be scored a little bit more. But in theory it’s supposed to be deficit neutral, not to increase the deficit. And this is a policy that would have a number of potential advantages. One would be that it would very sharply decrease child poverty, which is something that the existing child credit does but this would do even more. It simplifies government supports for children by folding a bunch of existing things into this new child allowance. Because it is a flat benefit, the idea at least is that you don’t have the situation which you can sometimes have with government benefit programs, where if you earn more income or if your household earns more income, you lose benefits and so you’re being punished for moving up the ladder. And then one of the things that particularly conservatives, although not only conservatives have been talking about for the last few years is that America’s birth rate has gotten lower. And that there’s long been a gap between the number of kids that Americans say they want to have and the number of kids that they actually end up having and to the extent that economic constraints are a reason for that. Maybe something should be done to enable people to hit their family related goals? So these are some of the reasons why people are in favor of this idea, but there’s also some opposition. And a lot of the opposition is along the lines of what Senator Marco Rubio and Senator Mike Lee have said, although they themselves have been advocates of an expanded child credit and taken some flak from their own right on that, they think that the Romney proposal is a bridge too far. That it’s a resurrection of the old welfare system, where you’re handing out money to parents and not requiring work. I’d say that this is a debate that’s still percolating on the right. I’d say to the extent that conservative voters and writers are paying any attention to it, it’s been largely positive. But conservative politicians have, as you note, been standoffish. There hasn’t been a ton of criticism, but not a ton of interest either. And I suspect a lot of people are just hanging back and waiting to see how this develops and where it goes. Partly, it’s gotten wrapped into the whole COVID relief debate, since Romney is trying to affect the outcome of that. But I imagine — if we assume that he’s not going to get his way completely on this, this will be a continuing issue going forward. And we’ll see if it takes off.

ezra klein

So Rubio and Lee were the two Republican senators who had been most forward on trying to put forward pro-family, pro-child policies more recently. And their immediate opposition, combined with the silence or opposition of any other Republican Senator, really struck me for its ferocity actually. One of the reasons I’d wanted to chat with you about this is that this seems to me to put two parts of the Republican coalition very much in tension. There is the Paul Ryan side of the party, the welfare reform side of the party that says, if you want to get anything from the government, anything at all, you have to work, including as a single mother, including by the way, in some cases as a married parent. And then another part of the party that has traditionalist family views. It would like to see more parents, but, I think, usually mothers staying at home with their children that would like to see it be more possible to have a single breadwinner families. And particularly in this post-Trump moment where I do think there’s been more assertiveness again from social conservatives, saying they’ve gotten a raw deal in the party recently. Romney seems to be coming in and saying, the party’s focus on work, on paid formal labor, as the only kind of valuable work and its dismissal of parenting as a valuable form of work, is wrong. And I thought I would see a larger social conservative core saying he’s right and we’ve gotten this wrong. I’ve been a little bit surprised that there hasn’t been more support for him, or do you think I’m misreading this?

ramesh ponnuru

Well, you have seen some social conservative support for Romney’s idea. I’d say some social conservatives who write for First Things or National Review have been pretty positive about it. Actually it’s been uniting folks from The Dispatch, as well as from First Things, people who have not always been getting along much in recent years. You haven’t had a ton of criticism. What I would say actually, the shoe that hasn’t dropped, you haven’t had a lot of conservatives on the economic side attacking the idea as a tax increase designed to fuel a spending increase. Because it would seem to me that the Romney plan is a straightforward violation of Grover Norquist’s pledge for Republicans not to raise taxes, because that pledge says, you can’t get rid of a tax deduction without making up for it with a tax cut somewhere else. And that’s exactly what Romney does — he gets rid of the state and local deduction, which is a pretty significant tax increase and he doesn’t use it to finance a tax cut. He uses that to finance this child allowance, which is to a certain degree, just spending. And I’ve been surprised. Maybe I missed it but I kept expecting The Wall Street Journal to run a bitter attack on it because they’ve been, for 30 years, bitter enemies of the child tax credit. Getting back to the question of this trade off, or this conflict among conservatives. You do see that in the debate you’ve had so far among policy wonks among, for example, my colleagues at the American Enterprise Institute, some of whom are for the Romney idea and some of whom are against it. Where there’s an empirical question about, if you move from our current suite of policies to this policy, what effect does it have on people’s incentive to work in various situations? And given this effect on people’s incentives what effect would it actually have on work effort? Then there’s this other question, which is, how much should we care about that? And particularly for social conservatives, if the question is not, should we scale back our participation in the paid labor force in order to spend more time on video games, but rather should we do that in order to spend more time raising children? Then we should look at it differently and we don’t think of a reduction in labor, paid labor supply, as the end of the world or necessarily even a bad thing.

ezra klein

Tell me where you fall on this. So I wrote this column about this. It’s very much about this exact idea. I think that not only on the right, but actually on the left, we overstate the value of paid labor. I’ll use myself as an example. We had a three day weekend recently and I will say that my Monday without childcare was a lot harder than my Mondays being a New York Times columnist. I mean, the idea that being a single parent of three kids is not labor, it’s just a wild way that we have mentally constructed our perceptions of the economy. What is the value of saying, it is work to go work at a daycare center taking care of somebody else’s child for $9 an hour, but it is not work to be at home taking care of your child or your children?

ramesh ponnuru

I generally make a point of saying, paid labor, rather than labor when I wish to talk about work for a paycheck. You don’t want to gloss over the enormous amount of work that gets done inside a household in raising kids especially. And yeah, I do think that is something that has gotten devalued for various reasons. That would mean households do need to make money and you want as many of them being able to sustain themselves as possible. But we aren’t and shouldn’t be materialists. And this gets, actually, to another point about the future of the Republican Party. There’s been a lot of discussion over the last several years about the Republicans being a Workers’ Party. There’s something to be said for that compared to being a business owners party. It certainly makes more political sense. But I think being a parent’s party is in some ways more attractive than either of those because that’s something that includes material dimension, but it’s not just replacing one materialist vision with another.

ezra klein

I want to key in on that, because I think that’s a really interesting way of putting that. So, let’s go back to Rubio and Lee here. What they say in their statement about the Romney plan and I’m paraphrasing this but I’m getting it mostly right is to say, to be a pro-family party is to be a pro-work party. And they mean here, as you just said, paid work. Now, most parents want to get paid for their work. Even if the Romney plan passed, you’d be getting a very small amount of money from the government to stay home with children. It’s not the amount of money you need to even be above the poverty line with a couple of kids. And so to make that decision in the ways people would, would tend to mean — and I’ve done reporting on cases like this. It tends to mean people have sick parents of their own, children with disabilities, they have a terrible boss, or a hellish commute, they have their own mental health issues. People don’t want to live in poverty for no reason, despite what Paul Ryan used to say about government being a hammock, not a safety net. It’s horrible to just be on social insurance. So, what is it that Rubio and Lee mean, in your view, when they say that the way to be pro-family is to be pro-paid-work, when what they are saying is that in the case of a single mother with three kids who believes there is a reason that it is better for her to stay home with her kids at this point in their development, they are saying, no, we here in Washington know better than you do what would be good for your family and that’s to go to paid work. Like they’re the heroes of their own story. You’re in this movement more than I am. What is the case for why Rubio and Lee know better than that mother what’s good for her family?

ramesh ponnuru

You can’t say that there’s never any conflict between these two things because in the life of every parent and every family there are very difficult conflicts that have to be managed even for very affluent, well-off, and lucky parents. There’s just a conflict between paid work and child rearing. But it certainly is true that if you create the conditions for a flourishing economy, which can include promoting work that this can be good for families and can be good for family life. So, here I actually will defend Lee and Rubio. Sometimes you’ll get people who will say things like, we shouldn’t care about incentives on work at all. If we’re helping people, if we’re bringing people out of poverty, you have to care about magnitudes, the size of these affects, and so forth. But I also do think that they’re right. The old welfare system did, by creating these poverty traps and discouraging work, harm families. I think that to some extent, and here I get back to disagreeing with them, I think that they are misapplying those lessons in thinking about this current proposal, which is a different proposal from the old welfare system and it’s in a different context than the old system was. For example, like as I was saying earlier, we’re talking about a flat benefit which doesn’t create that same kind of trap that you had in the old system.

ezra klein

Right, I just want to cut in here to say that in the old welfare system it had a structure where, oftentimes, for somebody on welfare getting $1 in paid labor wages would cut a $1 in welfare earnings. So, it was a situation, I’ve spoken to Cathy Eaton, the researcher about this, where unless you could get a job in ‘96 that was — or ‘95 let’s say before the reforms, that was above $8 an hour, which for many single parents was hard. It actually wasn’t economically worth it to go back to work. That is not the structure of the child allowance, which if you can get a job that’s about $200,000 a year, then you begin to lose some of the child allowance. But that’s a very different kind of incentive structure.

ramesh ponnuru

And so, let’s think about this also in terms of like — I mean if we’re talking about the value of work. I mean, one of the harms of unemployment, or prolonged spells of unemployment, involuntary unemployment is what I’m talking about here, is its effect on kids and not just the material effect on them. Although that’s obviously an important severe one, but also I do think it is good for kids to see their parents making a living and setting that example. It’s not the only important thing in the world. It’s not always something that has to happen. It depends on the particular situation and the trade offs that a particular household confronts and we can and should do some things to make it easier for households to negotiate these things.

ezra klein

I talked to a lot of Republicans in Washington, including some people we’ve been talking about, about these policy questions. I spent a lot of time talking to Scott Winship, who is a former Mike Lee staffer, now he’s a colleague of yours at AEI, about this. And I would say that there’s a very high level of abstraction when conservatives begin talking about things like work, right? I mean, that it’s important for children to see their parents and going to work. And I agree, of course. But that is a really different situation when you’re dealing with a parent who has a good, flexible job, then you have a parent whose only job they can get has just-in-time scheduling behind it. And so, that their parent is constantly not being able to be there when they said they were, they’re not being able to come to school functions, that their whole home life is unstable. In my piece I talked to a woman named, Wanda Lavender, who was working at a daycare. She was there for 12 years. Her wages never went above $9. So then she began working at a daycare and a Popeye’s. She’s working more than 60 hours a week. She never has time to see their kids — her kids. She has rheumatoid arthritis, so it’s really hard on her body. Work is great. I think it’s good for my son to see me as a New York Times columnist. But a lot of people get — the only option they have is very difficult exploitative labor. And something things like child allowances do is also give them a little bit more economic room to say, no, to jobs that aren’t very good. So they can get a job that is better, that is better for their family and allows them to also be a better version of a role model, but also a direct parent to their children. And I guess where I’m going with this is that one, I think a Republican Party based on being a parent’s party would be actually electorally lethal for the Democrats. I mean, I think it’s a very scary thing for the Democrats to consider. But two, that party would have to actually want to make work better. That party might want to do things like a higher minimum wage. There is some interest in wage subsidies, so I don’t want to take away from that. But for a party that cares so much about work, I often see it less interested in how that work actually functions in a family specific life, then in of idealized abstract conception about the inherent dignity of wage labor.

ramesh ponnuru

It seems to me that one of the things that social conservatives in particular, although not only my fellow social conservatives should look at, is this thing that you mentioned about scheduling practices, about these flexible scheduling practices. And it may be — one would want to do some empirical work on if you put restrictions on that what kinds of effects would it have on employment and national — but it may be that you just need to stop companies from being able to engage in these practices, because people need predictable work lives and work schedules. And that, that is a case where competition, as great as competition is in a lot of ways, is not going to lead you to an optimal outcome. Because maybe you can get a little bit of edge from a kind of exploitative practice that undermines the flourishing of families, which is a crucial component of our society’s flourishing. And so maybe Republicans and Democrats alike, at the state level at least, should look into restricting these kinds of corporate practices. And I actually was talking about this with somebody we both know as a libertarian and saying, I wonder if there’s some way we can solve that, and she just said, well, maybe we should just ban it. And it does seem to me that, that is something you see here and there some interest in it. I’ve seen some of the folks at The Institute for Family Studies, as a moderately social conservative think tank, they’ve talked about that. But it seems to me it ought to get more attention left, right, and center. [MUSIC PLAYING]

ezra klein

We’ve talked about Republicans a lot here. How do you assess Joe Biden’s presidency so far?

ramesh ponnuru

I think that the Biden administration is benefiting from the refusal of Trump to go away and to let others let him go away. It seems to me that there’s this disjunction between the expectations that a lot of Democrats, and particularly progressives, have of this presidency. And what seems to be likely, as an outcome, I think, are maybe beginning to see some of the letdown happen with the apparent sinking of the Neera Tanden nomination for OMB. But it seems to me that you’re going to be six or seven months into this administration and they’re going to be a lot of Democratic voters who are going to say, look, we’ve got the house, we’ve got the Senate, we’ve got the White House and there isn’t a big minimum wage increase, there isn’t any election reform, there isn’t much in the way of a Green New Deal, probably, there isn’t a public option on health care. Just keep going down the list. No Puerto Rican or D.C. statehood. And that the hopes have just really outstripped the capacity of the Biden Administration to deliver.

ezra klein

So, I think that will be true. But let me argue it two ways. On the one hand, I think the generalized view among progressives correctly is that, Joe Biden, has shown himself in this iteration to be a much more progressive and ambitious president than anybody would have imagined, even two years ago, right? Not just 10 years ago, but two years ago. If you look at what’s in the fiscal rescue bill, like that is a vast array of progressive parties, including, by the way $15 minimum wage. Even compared to where things were a couple of years ago, that’s a pretty big victory for progressives. If you look at a lot of his appointments, particularly I would say his second tier appointments, have been very progressive. Huge, huge. We’ve talked a lot about the Romney child allowance, but the child allowance idea that Biden has in the bill and Senate Democrats are doing is as big or bigger, depending on how you want to think about it, than the Romney plan. So there’s a lot in there and then that is supposed to be the first of a series of bills. The next one being a bigger reinvestment package in the economy. The question is how much of this can he do through Budget Reconciliation? And I mean, I’ve talked about this on the show before. I wrote a very big Sunday review cover at the beginning of the presidency saying that, Democrats need to go big and they need to go fast and to do that they need to get rid of the filibuster. And then of course. Senators Manchin and Sinema said, “Absolutely not. We will never do that under any circumstances.” And so there is simply no doubt the Democrats are going to end up disappointing a lot of their base on a lot of issues, particularly around things that you can’t do through direct economic measures. So statehood for DC and the offering of statehood to Puerto Rico, democracy reform, gun control, immigration reform, et cetera. But you can through budget reconciliation, get tremendously large economic and health care bills done. I think even plausibly, we’ll see, but plausibly a public option certainly lowering the Medicare age. So we’re going to have to see what that looks like in a year. Whether or not Democrats think Biden has delivered beyond their expectations for him or under-delivered, really depends on what happens with the Budget Reconciliation bills and how ambitious Democrats are willing to be with them. But I would say he surprised me to the upside, so far.

ramesh ponnuru

I mean one way — one optimistic way of looking at this for the Democrats, maybe a little bit more optimistic for, say, a Bill Kristol Democrat than an Ezra Klein Democrat would be this. So, you have the potential for — we achieve something like herd immunity. We’ve got an economic take off as a result of that. And maybe the problem that every presidency, from ‘92 onward has run into, of overreach and then build backlash doesn’t happen. Because he’s just structurally incapable of achieving the overreach. And so you don’t have a 1994, or 2006, or 2010, or 2018 backlash against Biden. And that you have more, if you’re a Democrat and you largely approve of this agenda, you have more slow and steady progress.

ezra klein

So Josh Jordan on Twitter summarized a bunch of recent polls looking at what percentage of Republicans believe the election was stolen from Donald Trump. USA Today Suffolk poll 73 percent, Gallup 83 percent, CNN 75, Monmouth 72 percent, Fox News, a low result, 68 percent. So, we’re looking at somewhere between 2/3 to 4/5 of the Republican Party saying, the election was stolen from Donald Trump. That is a hell of a thing to believe. How do you understand that belief and how do you think it changes political incentives and strategies for people who want to lead that party going forward?

ramesh ponnuru

So, the theory that the election was stolen is so amorphous, right? So, some of the people say yes to that mean, well those Facebook algorithms were unfairly twisted. And some of them mean, vote totals were altered and changed. And some of them just mean, well, The Washington Post, its coverage was not as evenhanded as we believe it should have been and was much too critical of Donald Trump and too soft on Biden. Now, different degrees of plausibility to different theories and also different degrees of severity. But that’s, I think, the key of this. It’s an umbrella. And you can be a Q nut or you can just be a standard issue Republican, who doesn’t trust the media, and both of you can affirm this. And particularly at that level of abstraction, no wedge is being driven between the two of you. And so, a politician can get up and give a speech to you that you will be applauding for one reason and the guy next to you is applauding for a different reason. The guy next to you maybe believes in some totally insane conspiracy theory involving the ghost of Hugo Chavez and you basically, you’ve got a problem with Jake Tapper.

ezra klein

I have usually agreed with that view and I think it was a very common one through the Trump presidency. But I do think one of the things that, probably the final year of the Trump presidency, some of what we saw on COVID then obviously what we saw during and after the election, I think, really calls it into question this idea that, well, people are just saying stuff. Donald Trump is just saying stuff. Republicans are just saying stuff and when push comes to shove they’re not going to act. When what I think we’ve seen is that it is a totally plausible mechanism of how people cognitively work to say, yes people might embrace an idea only half seriously. They embrace it as a statement of identity and expression of group solidarity. But once you have cognitively put yourself there, then once you get pushed, it’s not a far step to actually acting on that idea. Once you’ve opened yourself to it. So, which is to say, I think it has often been posited, there’s some kind of tension between maybe half seriously embracing a somewhat ridiculous idea and then really believing it. But I actually think it’s worth at least considering that that’s more of a process that the fact that you don’t need to take it too seriously to say yes to the pollster gets you in the door on something nutty. And once you’re in the door then it’s easier to actually become part of the party. Which I would say is like, you see that in a lot of QAnon people, you see it in Donald Trump post-election stuff, and you see it in the Republican Party, where most House Republicans voted to reject the results of the election. I mean, at some point, I think you have to say, however people feel in their heart of hearts, once you’re willing to say publicly you believe this then it becomes harder not to act as if you believe it.

ramesh ponnuru

Yeah, I think that I think that is true. That’s a good point. So first of all, let’s say you have a poll question on x crazy thing. Millions and millions of people are gonna, just all the way down, believe that crazy thing. But then millions of other people, if I could maybe paraphrase what you’re saying as, are signaling they’re belonging to a tribe, one of whose marks is accepting x as a non-insane view, right, as a tolerable view. That’s not a meaningless act and it’s not a harmless act if the x in question genuinely is crazy.

ezra klein

One thing I see you doing in a lot of your work is trying to reassure Republicans that the stakes of Democratic victories, big-D Democratic victories, Democratic Party victories aren’t so existential. That politics is still a contest of ideas that you can lose and it’ll be OK. You have a piece about how Republicans should be optimistic in opposition and that you can then win back and it’ll be OK. In ‘06 you wrote this book about Democrats called, “Party of Death,” which the argument had to do with things like abortion and death with dignity ideas, but obviously was a pretty hot title. I’m curious if watching the escalation of political stakes in people’s minds, how you feel about the title and the rhetoric around that looking back?

ramesh ponnuru

I thought at the time, it was a usefully provocative title. And I overestimated the extent to which people would actually, at least read the introduction. I certainly think that over the last 15 years, it has become more and more central to my political thinking that we have a real difficulty understanding the beliefs of people who are unlike us or who disagree with us. And so it’s important whenever we come across an opposing view, or something that our initial response is to oppose, or reject, or be horrified by, to stop and think, is it possible for an intelligent person of good will to believe this? And try to do a real work of imagination in figuring that out. And I did try to do that in the book, but I’d say I’ve tried to do it more frequently in both directions. So, I was opposed to Trump from the get-go, but I did try to argue, I could totally see why somebody might support Donald Trump in the Republican primaries in 2015 and 2016. And we shouldn’t just assume that everybody who supports him is supporting him for obnoxious reasons or hateful reasons. And the same is true of people on our left. And yet, I find that a lot of people are not willing to make that effort. And some people even make a point of pride, on left and right, of not making that kind of effort.

ezra klein

Yeah, I think that’s certainly true. It’s funny. It’s something I talk about in my book, too. But one of the tensions of politics, particularly in this era, is that putting aside the actual argument of “Party of Death,” the stakes of politics often are life and death. I mean. I do a lot of work on health care politics. I think, if you don’t pass universal health care bills people die. And I’ve talked about that in very explicit terms with Joe Lieberman, threatening to kill Obamacare. And there’s this interesting tension, particularly as the parties become more different from each other between, how do you approach politics with the seriousness it deserves, right? I mean, things like climate change. There really are profound stakes here and at the same time, don’t push people to a place where they feel they have to burn the Capitol down if they lose.

ramesh ponnuru

I wouldn’t say that the stakes are low and I wouldn’t. Try to minimize the stakes I care about elections and the outcomes of legislation. So, what I think the right in particular has a problem with is a kind of apocalypticism. The point of no return idea. If you lose this election, if you lose this bill, that’s the end of the Republic. That’s the end of freedom. You can never recover it. And people convinced themselves of this. Although they don’t actually follow their own beliefs on it. Like Michael Anton, he doesn’t, obviously, believe that the country is now doomed forever because Trump lost re-election. Otherwise he would have stopped talking, right? He would have stopped being involved in politics. Ted Cruz doesn’t believe that Obamacare, having survived his attempt to get rid of it in 2013, means the end of the Constitution, because he’s still there, right? Just as it wasn’t the end of free markets and capitalism when we got Medicare in the first place in 1965, about which you could have made a stronger slippery slope argument, than applied to Obamacare. That’s what I want to counter, because that kind of thinking logically could lead to defeatism despair and surrender, just as much as it could lead to extremism, and violence, and so forth. But it just strikes me as just the wrong attitude to take towards politics in a Democratic country even when we rightly care about political outcomes.

ezra klein

I think it’s a good place to come to a close here, so let me move to our recommendation section and I’ll start with this. If I want to understand where the Republican Party is going, who are some folks I should be reading?

ramesh ponnuru

Well, I have to commend some of my colleagues at National Review, like Michael Brendan Dougherty and Robert VerBruggen. I’d mention Joshua Hammer, Helen Andrews, Coleman Hughes. There are a lot of voices, I find that they are increasingly people who are younger than me, which is a little dismaying. One of the plus sides of the lack of coherence and definition in Republicanism is there’s a lot of interesting voices out there.

ezra klein

What book would you give a progressive right now to read about conservatism?

ramesh ponnuru

I’m biased because he’s a very good friend of mine. But, I think, I would give both to a progressive, who wants to learn about conservatism, and the other way around, Yuval Levin’s, book “The Great Debate” about the debate between Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke. Because Yuval, being a conservative, is very much on the Burke side of this. But he does such a nice job and is such a fair-minded articulator of their different positions. I mean, my own experience was that I ended up being a little bit, maybe more sympathetic to Paine and a little bit less sympathetic to Burke by the end of that book.

ezra klein

And I’ll note, you can listen to Yuval. He was on the show just a couple of weeks ago. The episode is called, “Can the Republican Party be Saved?” What’s the last book you read that actually changed your mind about anything?

ramesh ponnuru

OK, I’m going to give you two answers on this. One, the serious heavy political book. Michael Greve’s “The Upside-Down Constitution” changed the way I thought about federalism and changed a conventional conservative view of that. It’s dense, but it’s really quite interesting if you’re interested in federalism in the Constitution. And then Popular Crime, Bill James, which changed the way I thought about a number of interesting historical episodes. And it’s a real treat to read.

ezra klein

And so, finally we’re here. And, I think, a kiddo in the background. What’s your favorite children’s book?

ramesh ponnuru

He’s a little emperor of the house. So, I really enjoyed reading “The Chronicles of Narnia” to my eldest, when she was little. I’d read, “The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe,” when I was a kid, but I hadn’t actually read the rest of the series. And I’m looking forward to reading it to my younger ones when the time comes.

ezra klein

Ramesh Ponnuru, thank you very much.

ramesh ponnuru

You’re welcome.

ezra klein

“The Ezra Klein Show” is a production of New York Times Opinion. It is produced by Roge Karma and Jeff Geld, fact checked by Michelle Harris, original music by Isaac Jones, and mixing by Jeff Geld.



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