This interview with Ramesh Ponnuru, Senior Editor of National Review, continues the Comeback Conversations, a series of interviews and articles from The New Ledger and leading figures on the center-right on the subject of a free market conservative political comeback. No less an authority than David Plouffe maintains that American politics is inherently cyclical, and the GOP will eventually return to power. The question is whether that return will be measured in cycles or in generations, and the degree to which the Republican Party that emerges from the wilderness will look like the fractured GOP as it exists today — whether it will represent an as-yet hypothetical resurgence of four-pillared Reaganesque conservatism, or something very different.
TNL: Thanks again for taking the time to do this. The first question we ask everyone is: can free market conservatism make a political comeback? And if so, how?
Ponnuru: You’re welcome. Free-market conservatism can make a comeback if middle-class Americans can be persuaded to see it as offering them solutions to the problems they face. That comeback will happen earlier if the resurgence of liberalism leads to results that will again discredit it.
TNL: What do you expect to be the outcome of the current health care fight — specifically, what if anything do you think President Obama will get passed before the midterms, and what do you see as the long-term ramifications of it?
Ponnuru: Liberals are overestimating public demand for their health-care policies. I think it is possible that Democrats will achieve very little after overreaching. If they accomplish their goals, however, they will have increased public dependence on the federal government in a way that will shift American politics permanently to the Left. That is one reason they are so determined to win.
TNL: We’re seeing so much movement on auto bailouts, the stimulus package, health care, now climate policy — all of which is costing a pretty penny. Is it possible for the Right to reclaim the high ground here, and not just cede the argument based on “You spent too much during the Bush years, who are you to criticize us,” especially when Obama promised a net spending cut during the election?
Ponnuru: I don’t think Republicans should let Bush’s spending record keep them from criticizing Obama’s much more lavish spending. But opposition to higher spending cannot be the centerpiece of a conservative domestic agenda. Republicans will have to show that they can restore growth and reduce the cost of living for middle-class families if a political majority for limited government is to be built.
TNL: Do you think center-right efforts to persuade voters on policy and solutions will be swamped by the Left’s efforts to fundamentally change the demographics of their electoral base?
Ponnuru: Demographics is not destiny from election to election. The composition of the country did not change nearly as dramatically between 2004 and 2008 as the election results did. People who used to vote for Republicans stopped doing it. They can be persuaded to come back. At the same time, there is no question that the decline of whites as a proportion of the electorate and the decline of marriage pose long-term political challenges for conservatives.
TNL: What needs to be done to arrest the perception of intellectual decline on the Right? And considering the apparent short-term benefits of the current upsurge in populism, should conservatives even try?
Ponnuru: Generating more William F. Buckleys, more James Q. Wilsons, and more Thomas Sowells would help. Short of that, holding ourselves to exacting standards would be good. I don’t think an anti-intellectual populism can build a national majority. People need to have confidence that conservative politicians not only share their values but can advance their interests.
TNL: We’ll let you go with this: President Obama is one of the most unique and challenging political figures in our nation’s history. Over the next three and a half years, and considering their minority status, what examples should the center-right look at for guidance in how to work effectively with him on policies where he adopts a centrist perspective, while best frustrating his profoundly leftist policies, particularly when it comes to the economy?
Ponnuru: This would be a much more difficult question if President Obama showed any sign of being interested in bipartisanship, as opposed to the perception of it. It is possible to imagine policies on tax reform and entitlements that would be worth pursuing and could get bipartisan support, but given the realities of modern politics it will probably be up to the White House to make the first moves.