Lanhee Chen is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, a columnist for Bloomberg View, and the former policy director of the Romney 2012 campaign. I sat down with him on Friday, September 19, to ask him about immigration, healthcare, foreign policy, Asian voters, and the Republican Party. Below is a lightly edited transcript of the interview.
Jason Willick: What is behind the White House’s decision to delay unilateral action on immigration until after the midterms, and are they going to delay it indefinitely?
Lanhee Chen: I think it’s pretty clear they saw that there was greater political benefit to delaying it, particularly in states with vulnerable incumbent Democrats. It’s entirely a political decision, I think people recognize that. As to whether they’ll delay it further or not, I don’t know. What I keep coming back to on immigration reform is that President Obama had the opportunity to pass the immigration reform package he wanted the first two years he was in office, in fact he promised he would during the 2008 campaign and he didn’t do it. So it’s disappointing, I think, that he’s waiting until now and that he’s engaging in executive action rather than working with Congress to find a permanent solution.
JW: Do you think the Republicans need to do comprehensive immigration reform to win back the White House?
LC: Yeah, I’ve been of the belief for a while that Republicans need to certainly embrace immigration reform, and I think a big part of that is the question of how to deal with the 12 million individuals who are here illegally. Obviously I think a comprehensive solution, one that addresses what to do with those people, is important. I do believe Republicans need to make immigration reform a priority.
JW: So you don’t agree with the people who say that immigration reform will demoralize Republican working class voters and create a big new Democratic constituency?
LC: Well I think the evidence on whether they will become a completely Democratic constituency is mixed. I do think that there are obviously political questions here, but we’ve got to do what is right for the country policy-wise. And I think the benefit, frankly, politically, for Republicans is that they can appear to be problem-solvers on this issue as opposed to obstructionists, which unfortunately is the reputation they’ve been painted with in this area.
JW: Republicans thought that they could run against Obamacare in 2014, but they aren’t making that much noise about it right now. Is it still a winning issue?
LC: I do think it’s a winning issue, I think what’s happened with Obamacare is that the the opinion on it is kind of baked in the cake now if you will. People who are evaluating Senate candidates this November, for example, have already taken Obamacare into account. It’s part of their broader opinion of the president, and that I think will continue to be a drag on Democratic candidates. I do think it’s still a good issue, and a number of campaigns are emphasizing it, and I think that they are right to because it continues to be, in my mind, a very problematic piece of legislation.
JW: Do Republicans have a plan to replace Obamacare? Some policy writers have proposed plans, but are any candidates embracing them?
LC: I think there are a number of great policies and plans out there to replace Obamacare. Senators Coburn and Hatch have a great piece of legislation in the Senate that would replace Obamacare and they have a great pathway to do that. There are others who are policy thinkers outside of government who have articulated solutions. So I think Republicans have plenty of solutions. The question is can they coalesce behind one or a few ideas, and I sure hope so because I think it’s important that if Republicans are going to continue to argue against the Affordable Care Act that they have something tangible to replace it with. It always frustrates me when people in the media say that Republicans don’t have a plan to replace Obamacare. The problem isn’t that they have too few, it’s that they have too many.
JW: Paul Ryan wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal a little while agosaying he regretted his makers versus takers language. Do Republicans need to change their tone on that issue?
LC: I felt badly for Paul in that case because I know his sentiment was not to express that he was trying to look down on some group of people versus others. I think it’s important that Republicans maintain a tone that is understanding and respectful. I think there are a lot of people who rely on government for very legitimate reasons because they are unable to do things for themselves. On the other hand I think Republicans are also right to raise the issue that dependency on government has grown to the point where it is problematic, both from the perspective of a nation that values work, but also from the perspective that we don’t have unlimited resources.
JW: You’ve written a fair amount about Republicans and Asian voters. Asian voters look like a natural Republican constituency with their high average income and emphasis on work and family values, but Obama won 73 percent of Asian voters in 2012. Why is that?
LC: A couple of things. One is that Asian Americans haven’t been reached out to historically by Republicans. There is an encouraging effort underway now at the Republican National Committee to do that. Showing up is really important. Understanding the Asian community, and speaking to the issues that are significant to them, is also important. Republicans have to do a better job emphasizing the importance of entrepreneurship, small business and the value of family and education. And frankly, here in California, there was an effort by some Democrats last year to bring affirmative action back to college admissions, and that’s an issue that is very salient for many Asian Americans, and I think Republicans have a position that is more in line with that of many Asian voters. I think affirmative action is one of those issues that has the potential to be a game-changer in California. So I do hope that Republicans invest in reaching out to the Asian American community, if you could even say there is one — the issue with the Asian American community is that it is actually many different ethnic communities put together.
JW: With Rand Paul’s ascent in the Republican Party and the Republicans accepting the sequester of defense spending, it looked for a while like the party was moving in a more libertarian direction on foreign policy, but just now they voted to authorize the intervention in Syria. Are Republicans still the interventionist party?
LC: I think the broad majority of Republicans stand for strong national defense. They believe in the importance of a strong military and an America that stands for something. My sense is that with respect to ISIL, Republicans are in favor of an interventionist approach, which is where the president is as well. I don’t think it means the demise of those who would be interested in pulling back more broadly, and we’ll see how this all plays out in the coming election. People who have articulated in the past a sentiment of wanting to pull back are finding themselves in a much more difficult position now than they were six months ago.
JW: Could that be fatal for Rand Paul?
LC: I don’t think it’s fatal for him, I think he has a lot of other attributes that make him a strong contender. But I think in this respect there is some vulnerability there. Certainly Rand’s got to be able to explain his position, which is something he’s been struggling to do.
JW: Do you have any favorite Republicans for 2016?
LC: It’s a strong field. I’ve had the occasion to get to know and to meet pretty much all of them. Whether it’s Jeb Bush or Chris Christie or Marco Rubio or Rick Perry or Bobby Jindal or Mike Pence or whoever else, I think it’s a strong group. But I do think that regardless of who the nominee is, they’re going to have a tough task in facing Hillary Clinton. But there are vulnerabilities in her record and hopefully they’ll have the chance to exploit them over the course of a campaign.
Jason Willick, a senior studying history, is the editor in chief of Stanford Political Journal.