David Brooks Opening Statement - Debate: The GOP Must Move to the Center or Die | Intelligence Squared U.S.
In the ’60s, my parents took me to a “be in” where hippies would go just to be. And to demonstrate their liberation from money and material things, they threw their wallets into a garbage can. I was five. I saw a five dollar bill on fire in the garbage can. I ran into the fire, grabbed the money and ran away.
And that was my first step over to the right in my life. Kept going. But we had one other influence in my family, which was my grandfather and his father, immigrants, lower east side, a Jewish kid trying to make it in the city. We had the attitude, the think Yiddish act British attitude, “We’ll fit in.” We had the dream of making it in the city which meant making it in this neighborhood where we’re standing, in the upper west side, the Upper East Side.
And that was the — how the Republican Party was started. It was started by Abraham Lincoln, a poor boy in Illinois who wanted to make it. And he did it when he was in the state legislature, using government to give poor boys and girls the power to make it and achieve social mobility. He created it by creating a state bank to invest, building canals and railroads. He got to the presidency, created railroad legislation, Homestead Act, Land-Grant College Act, even introduced the income tax. It was using government to give poor boys and girls a chance to succeed. And that was still around when I got there, when I got to Washington. Ronald Reagan, a much more pragmatic and flexible person than is now portrayed by many people on the right, it was about using government in limited but energetic ways to give poor people a chance to succeed. Reagan did it. Is the Republican Party doing it now? I think they have not because they’ve been so hostile to government. Ronald Reagan was more pragmatic than the current Republican Party.
It’s also no longer 1980. Now if you want to rise and succeed, it’s not enough just to work hard and row a boat across the Ohio River like Lincoln. Think of a poor girl who wants to be like Lincoln today. She can’t just work hard ferrying people across that river. She grows up probably without a father. She grows up in a chaotic community with low social trust, high economic pressure, few community bonds. To succeed, she’s probably going to need some language instruction. She’s probably going to need some early — some protection from early childhood distresses that’ll destroy her self-control. She’s going to need institutions that’ll help her build relationships so she can use people as tools for learning throughout life. She’s probably going to have to spend 21 years in education to qualify for a middle class job. And so what does the Republican Party today have to say to her? Almost nothing. This party is encased in a simplistic and archaic metric, government versus the market. Government bad, the market good.
If you’re an energy executive or chemical executive, maybe the government is your central pain. If you’re that little girl, the government is not your big problem. If you’re that little girl, the government, through Pell grants is sometimes the solution at helping you work hard and becoming a better capitalist. Does the Republican Party offer anything? No, which is why Asian Americans, for example, voted against the Republican Party three times to one. The Republican Party has become so hostile to government that they find it very hard to have anything positive to offer. So hostile to government they can’t really stand for social mobility, the cause they started with. And so this is a party that has lost the essence of having a positive agenda even in the cause that was its founding principle. And the country knows that. Republicans have lost five out of the last six popular votes in the elections. They’ve lost the Senate. They should have won. They held onto the House by force of redistricting. The Republican party has a 33 percent overall approval rating when the Democrats have 47 percent. You take every rising group in America. The Republican Party is losing that group. Latinos, by 4 to 1. Asian Americans, by 3 to 1. African Americans, by 9 to 1. People in single households by 2 to 1. They’re getting slaughtered among young people. If this electorate, and the electorate of the 20th century, was made up of 85-year-old men — white men, the party would be doing awesome.
This party is not that party. This party sometimes looks like the receding roar of a white America that’s never coming back and has to move to recapture that. It has — and what is the people’s top criticism of the Republican Party? Recent Gallup poll this week, the top criticism is they do not compromise. So this is a party going down the drain. It’s a party that’s unwilling to compromise on budgets, unwilling to compromise on guns, apparently unwilling to compromise on immigration.
Bob Bennett of Utah, a very conservative guy, thrown out of the Senate for working with a Democrat. I had lunch with the fourth most conservative member of the Senate — terrified of getting primaried from the right. Unwilling to have any flexibility. Becoming an uncompromising party. To me, this is a party that has to tackle two big issues. The first issue is the welfare state, which is making us unsustainable. The second issue is that little girl and the social immobility, the social segmentation that Charles Murray writes about. And my advice to the Republican Party: don’t move to the center for the sake of moving to the center. The center is nothing. Move to the center for the sake of that little girl, which is your founding principle, which is social mobility.
Do right by that little girl and you’ll do right by yourself politically. And that means having a positive agenda. It means being more flexible. It means being prudent and sensible, not a party of a red rump of America.