Artur Davis, a former Democratic congressman from Alabama, was the first House member outside Illinois to endorse Barack Obama’s presidential bid. Yet over the next several years he bucked his party on a number of high-profile votes and became the sole member of the Congressional Black Caucus to oppose the president’s healthcare reform law in 2010. After losing a primary bid for governor in his home state, Davis reemerged in 2012 as a Virginia Republican, floating tantalizing though decidedly noncommittal hints that he might run for office again. TAC recently spoke to him:
TAC: The Republican Party’s platform hasn’t changed much since the Bush years, except with a bit more fiscal stringency thanks to the Tea Party. So did your views change, or did the Democratic Party simply become inhospitable?
Artur Davis: The Democratic Party became more insular, and I finally decided over the course of the last year and a half that the things the Democrats were saying weren’t resonating with me and that the things that the Republicans were saying did. I’m certainly one of many Americans disappointed with the Obama presidency, one of many Americans who voted for promises that haven’t been delivered on. So my switching parties may be of interest to people because I used to be an elected official, but it’s frankly a fairly broad trend in parts of the country. And you’ll definitely see that in Virginia. Barack Obama got about 53 percent of the vote in Virginia. Barack Obama is running about 46 right now. There are a lot of people who left the Democratic Party.
TAC: To what do you attribute the Democratic Party’s failure to advance any credible plan for entitlement reform?
AD: The Medicare program constructed in 1965 was for a different country and a different population than the one it serves today, but essentially it’s financed in the same manner. That’s not sustainable. We can’t sustain a system where Medicare is a universal program that is a God-given American right if you’re a senior with a certain income level. If we want to preserve the safety net aspects of Medicare, which we absolutely need to, we’re going to have to make changes to the program. We are going to have to give people a viable option out of Medicare, particularly when they’re affluent and when they can afford it.
Social Security will not exist like it does today for people under 30. It absolutely won’t. And if we don’t make smart, prudent changes in the system, we will end up with a system that can’t even meet basic safety net goals. And I think that’s the risk the Democrats are incurring now—that by their loyalty to the present system for financing and sustaining Social Security and Medicare, they are contributing to an insolvency that will eventually undercut the safety net goals that were a core part of these programs.
TAC: You’ve been a critic of both a laissez-faire approach to Wall Street and the new regulatory regime embodied in the Dodd-Frank Act. Are there regulatory solutions to the financial system without breaking up the big banks?
AD: I’m a Republican that believes that we do need regulatory reform in the next couple years. And I’m a Republican who does worry that some of the large banks continue to take on risk that is at an unacceptable level. I worry that the rules are entirely too hazy. I worry that the lines of what is permissible behavior and what’s not permissible behavior are more opaque than ever in the aftermath of Dodd-Frank.
I’m torn about the too-big-to-fail question. When I hear legitimate conservatives like Stephen Moore [of the Wall Street Journal], whose credentials are indisputable, say for the first time that they think there is something to the idea of preventing large investment banks from occupying such a large space of this economy, I have to take that seriously.
TAC: Who are some of your intellectual influences writing today?
AD: Reihan Salam and Ross Douthat, who wrote a very constructive book several years ago about Republicans refashioning themselves to be a middle-class friendly party, as conservatism was in the Reagan era. David Brooks is sometimes a mile wide and an inch deep, but at his best he makes sound observations about the challenges in the American economy and the limits of an untethered free-market approach to the capital markets. And he has made some sound observations about the need for conservatives to constructively address gaps in this society. We do have a gap in this country between rich and poor. We do have a gap between people whose livelihood is in the manufacturing sector and people whose livelihood is in the high-tech sector. They exist and it’s not wrong for conservatives to think constructively about how markets and public policy can meet those gaps.
Conservatism offers to the public a sense of responsibility, fiscally speaking. A sense of personal responsibility in terms of the obligations individuals have towards themselves as opposed to obligations government has towards them. And conservatism does contribute a sense of limits. I think conservatives ought to be pushing to inject that perspective into the questions of how we address the gaps in our society instead of acting as if they are somehow things we shouldn’t be bothered with.
Jordan Bloom is associate editor of TAC. Follow him on Twitter.