FLORIDA, October 1, 2012 — We have been hearing a lot about Artur Davis lately.
Since the former four-term Alabama congressman left the Democratic Party earlier this year, many have been wondering which turn his career will take next. One of America’s fastest rising political stars, Davis is now a Republican and lives in Virginia.
What does he think about the most pressing of issues facing our country?
In this first part of a candid discussion with me, Davis explains his views about an array of subjects. From the upswing of partisan politics to crafting smart national security policy to diversifying the GOP, his ideas are sure to be heard quite often during the years ahead.
Joseph F. Cotto: This is surely one of the most polarized eras in American politics. Not too long ago, finding consensus on what was best for the country was not such a partisan debacle. Why do you believe that the times have changed?
Representative Artur Davis: The public’s distrust in politics in government has limited the space elected officials have to maneuver: what was once celebrated as compromise is now ridiculed as a sell-out or sacrifice of principle. In addition, to cultivate their partisan base, politicians frequently resort to demonizing the opposition in a way that makes outreach to the other side harder to justify.
There are myriad other institutional reasons, from the unintended consequence that campaign finance reform has shifted the financing of elections toward organized ideological interests; to the declining participation by independents or even moderates in party primaries; to the growth of a blogosphere that acts as a frontline enforcer against accommodation or compromise.
Cotto: Many conservationists believe that looking after the environment should be considered a bedrock value of public policy. Nonetheless, partisan rhetoric often trumps progress. Has the debate on green issues become hijacked by the far left, in your opinion?
Rep. Davis: What the establishment press fails to appreciate is that confidence in climate change does not equate to embracing any specific public policy. It is possible to accept the scientific consensus on the subject and still reject the left’s preferred options of job killing regulations or too heavy handed an Environment Protection Agency. The left’s failure to articulate an environmental agenda that doesn’t jeopardize major sectors of the manufacturing economy, or threaten an impossibly complex bureaucratic structure like cap-and-trade, has polarized environmental policy.
The conservation agenda will remain another area of gridlock until the advocates of aggressive environmentalist policies stop callously treating economic sacrifice as a necessary evil, and stop brandishing science as a tool to marginalize opposition.
Cotto: During complicated times like these, a robust national security policy is essential. While America can continue to build stronger relationships with proven allies, more should be done to prevent against domestic terrorism as well. What are your opinions on this most challenging matter?
Rep. Davis: I don’t mind conceding that the single most successful area of bipartisanship in the last decade is a forceful, tough-minded approach to combating terror networks. To be sure, the Bush administration was too quick to abandon international norms against torture, and the Obama administration was far too hasty to try to convert anti-terror prosecutions into just another feature of the criminal justice system, but both presidencies seemed to learn their lessons and adjust. The result is a relentless, 11 year campaign that has preserved the rule of law and avoided compromising American freedoms.
It is probably no accident that national security is the area of policy least vulnerable to the elements of ideological purity and interest group influence. Presidents have a freer hand to learn and to adapt in this area than in the domestic arena.
Cotto: Needless to say, America remains caught in the Great Recession’s clutches. How do you think that our country can reclaim its economic vitality?
Rep. Davis: The left’s naïve belief that business confidence is irrelevant to investment or expansion has wounded the economy greatly. It is impossible to find a phase in the post WWII era when government has saddled the markets with such a ramping up of regulations, or such a persistent drumbeat for changes in the tax code (Neither Carter, Clinton, Kennedy, or Johnson remotely practiced such an agenda). There are illusions on the right too, especially an aversion to addressing upward mobility and wage stagnation, but it is the left’s fiction that has contributed to blundering three successive years of recovery.
Long-term, the political right will also need to be much more pro-active in revolutionizing education policy and clearing the system of impediments like much too protective tenure laws. Rather than trust reform to the vagaries of state politics, a future Republican president will need to use the power of federal oversight to prod schools to adopt market competitive principles.
Cotto: Why, in your opinion, do ethnic, racial, religious, and social minorities support the Democratic Party so strongly? Is there any specific reason, or is it due to generational norms?
Rep. Davis: The most succinct answer is that racial minorities have tended to view the federal government as a protector of their interests, and have tended to prefer government solutions over slower moving market forces. Obviously, policies count: there should be no surprise that minorities embrace a Democratic Party that is comfortable, indeed too comfortable, in describing its policies as supportive of particular ethnic interests, and who link those interests to making more public benefits and resources available.
There is a pathway for Republicans, but it will take patience. Conservatives will have to get comfortable describing, for example, the ways that market solutions reduce poverty, or the ways educational accountability uplift minorities, and the Republican Party will need to engage the debate over why conservative principles work better in reducing poverty and strengthening the middle class. Mobility and income security remain dominant concerns in the African American community, and silence on those issues is construed as indifference.
One parting note: I have come to feel that Republicans overestimate the appeal of issues like black business development or entrepreneurship. To many African Americans, that prioritization signals a tone of elitism or worse, a fixation only on the element of the community that is affluent and comes closest to resembling the American mainstream. It’s a subtlety, but one that makes the Right often seem oblivious to the conditions at the heart of the African American community.
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