Republicans should go to Baltimore

The GOP needs Baltimore — and an urban strategy


Republicans should go to Baltimore.

Of course, that isn't a fix for any of Baltimore's immediate problems, nor the GOP's. But it should happen. Not because Republicans can fix Baltimore by themselves — they can barely fix themselves as a national party — but because it's long past time for there to be real political competition for the votes and leadership of America's inner cities. It is precisely because there is so little competition across America's largest cities that both parties lack real urban agendas. Building some party machinery in inner cities would be difficult, expensive, and (for a while) incredibly embarrassing work for the GOP.

Still, it has to be done.

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Over at National Review, Kevin Williamson outlined the disasters of one-party Democratic governance in major American cities. You can throw bricks at Mr. Williamson for being partisan. But maybe we should throw bricks at Republicans for not being partisan enough. Or at least for not having enough party spirit to compete in America's urban core.

The largest city with a Republican mayor is San Diego. Kevin Faulconer won that seat partly because of political scandal among the Democrats. Of the largest 100 cities in America, less than a dozen have even nominally Republican mayors. These Republican mayors are usually found in cities with black populations no greater than 18 percent. Cities like San Diego, Oklahoma City, Colorado Springs, and Arlington, Texas. Baltimore hasn't had a Republican mayor since the 1960s.

C'mon, you may be thinking. Do you really believe that the national GOP's agenda is a good fit for Baltimore? No. Not really. Of course, as a conservative, I think conservative education policy could bring about some good along the margins. And yes, I think Republicans are often better negotiators with the public sector unions that act primarily as employment vehicles rather than deliverers of service to poor Americans. But overall, no, the national GOP and Baltimore are not a good fit. Black America has its own form of conservatism. The inner cities aren't clamoring for Mitt Romney clones.

And that's fine. Both major parties have historically had sectional variations in ideology. Conservative Republicanism grew out of the Midwest, while Rockefeller Republicanism reigned in the Northeast. Conservative Democrats ruled the South, and machine-party Democrats contended in northern cities. Even today, Democrats occasionally build records that are moderate or right-of-center when they act within the balanced-budget restrictions of many state legislatures and governorships. To be a real factor in America's inner cities, the GOP would necessarily have to create a different "urban Republicanism" that would look and sound different than the RNC line, and make policy in ways that are at odds with the exurban red-state core of the party.

Real political competition in inner cities would not only mean more accountability for city government, but more informational flow out from the inner city and into public consciousness. Leaders tested by toughly fought urban elections, or winners of improbable mayoralties, would be prime candidates for gubernatorial and Senate races, making them and their cities a part of the national political conversation.

So much of the commentary about the failures of Baltimore's justice system and the economic failure in West Baltimore seems disconnected from any reality there. That's why everyone in the national commentariat is retreating to lame references to The Wire to explain their own reactions to Baltimore. The closest they can come to pretending to understand is by channeling a prestige HBO drama. Except for the Baltimore Sun, the major journals of opinion and many of the newspapers that cover American politics and society as a kind of choreographed pillow-fight between rich Republican interests and rich Democratic interests have been astonishingly unhelpful in drawing out meaning or sensible stories from Baltimore. Even the White House can't think of anything much better than asking celebrities to talk at Baltimore.

These are problems that won't admit easy solutions. Inner cities can feel at once over-policed and under-policed. The carceral state doesn't submit to easy ideological solutions either. The fact that America incarcerates more men than any other nation is not just a reflection of "the system's" cruelty, but also of its civilizing logic. In other nations, deadbeat dads are as free as the limits of private vengeance allow them to be. In America, fathers who fail to pay child support can make up astonishingly high numbers of the men who spend time in jails.

But the lessons that can be learned by enterprising and competitive politicians in Baltimore may have applications elsewhere, as all the baleful social trends that were once erroneously blamed on blacks themselves have long since started to spread across the great white Appalachian ghetto, from the south to the Catskills, or along the exurbs of Las Vegas, and the inland areas of the Northeast.

Time to set up shop, listen to local concerns, and start recruiting activists. Almost four decades ago, George Romney tried and failed utterly at finding a way for Republicans to speak to the concerns of inner cities. It's been two decades since Jack Kemp tried, in his own gimmicky way, to do the same. Until Republicans try again, in a sustained way, they have nothing to learn and nothing to say to cities like Baltimore.

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