Neel Kashkari and the future of the GOP

David Cohen Former Deputy Assistant Sec. of the Interior
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Asian Pacific Heritage Month starts next week, and for one son of Asian immigrants, Neel Kashkari, it will be a very important month indeed. The significance of the month for Kashkari is coincidental: May is when his campaign for governor of California will kick into high gear in advance of the June 3 primary.

It would be no easy task for any Republican to unseat incumbent Governor Jerry Brown. But many Republicans believe that Kashkari, as the party’s standard bearer in the most populous state, would be a good ambassador for the GOP brand. Kashkari should have particular appeal to many key groups that have been abandoning the party in droves — including Asian and Pacific-Americans.

President Obama’s reelection in 2012 wasn’t just a rude awakening; it was many rude awakenings. Among the rudest was the revelation that President Obama had won 73 percent of Asian American vote, higher than his percentage in the heavily Democratic Hispanic and Jewish communities. Asians used to vote reliably Republican: Reagan won the Asian vote, and George H.W. Bush won it over Bill Clinton by a whopping 55 to 31 percent.

What stings Republicans so much about losing the Asian vote is that Asian values seem to line up so well with Republican values. Asian Americans, as compared to the country as a whole, tend to be more traditional, more likely to own small businesses, and, likely as a result, more prosperous. Unlike other minority groups, Asian Americans tend to oppose racial preferences in higher education because they are disproportionately harmed by them. The results of the 2012 election had many Republicans wondering: If we can’t win the support of Asian Americans, what hope do we have of winning support in any minority community?

Neel Kashkari won’t solve that problem all by himself, even if he becomes the next governor of California. But his story is uniquely appealing to the very type of voter that Republicans desperately need to win back. He exemplifies the type of high-achieving whiz kid that immigrant parents love to brag about; the type of immigrant success story that America loves to brag about.

The son of Hindu Indian immigrants, Kashkari moved to California after college to become an aerospace engineer. He later returned to school to get a Wharton MBA, and then became an investment banker for Goldman Sachs. After President George W. Bush convinced Goldman Sachs head Henry Paulson to be his Treasury Secretary, Paulson convinced Kashkari to join him as his aide. Kashkari later became an Assistant Secretary of the Treasury and, after the financial crisis metastasized in the final months of the Bush administration, was tapped to run the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP).

Kashkari typifies the kind of Asian Americans who might respond to the Republican message. But Kashkari also has much in common with those who have led the Asian-American exodus from the Republican Party. A self-described “libertarian” on social issues, Kashkari favors abortion rights and same-sex marriage. In that regard, he is in tune with the young, educated Asian Americans who are most responsible for the president’s margin of victory in their communities. These voters are turned off by the tendency of some Republicans to describe their values as specifically “Christian,” as opposed to the more inclusive notion of traditional, middle class family values that Christianity shares with other faiths.

For some conservatives, Kashkari’s leading role in TARP might be a deal-breaker. Consternation over the Wall Street bailouts, after all, helped spawn the Tea Party. Kashkari stresses that the TARP program was a fiscal success, with taxpayers earning a $13 billion profit on their investment. We should recall that TARP was a response to extraordinary circumstances: continued hemorrhaging of the financial system would have led to a complete economic collapse. Many of the strongest opponents of state interference in the economy came to the reluctant conclusion that TARP was necessary.

Republicans who have litmus tests may not support Kashkari. But Republicans have a choice: The party can get more pure or more inclusive, but not both. The choice may, in fact be to get more inclusive, or steadily fade from relevance. The Republican Party is not the Marine Corps, and cannot survive by shrinking down to the Few and the Proud.

Shortly after the 2012 election, I wrote a column about what the GOP needs to ensure its long-term viability. Entitled “Building a Rainbow on the Right,” the column demonstrates how to advocate for conservative policies in ways that resonate in communities that don’t traditionally embrace conservatism. Conservatives must, for example, stress why free markets are the most effective way to fight poverty; why our unsustainable public spending will eventually make it impossible for the government to protect the most vulnerable in society; why raising taxes on the “rich” can primarily hurt those struggling to find work; why policies imposed by teachers unions rob poor children of their only shot at escaping poverty. Kashkari articulates a similar message, and does it quite well. He is the type of Republican who can help build the party, and help it thrive for years to come.

If Kashkari were to win election in November, he would not be the first Indian-American governor of a U.S. state. There are currently two Indian-American governors — Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Nikki Haley of South Carolina — and both are Republicans. Why do Indian-Americans rise higher in the GOP than they do in the Democratic Party? I once suggested to journalist Tunku Varadarajan that in the Democratic Party, with its emphasis on identity politics, Indian-Americans are expected to “wait their turn” in favor of more “established” ethnic communities.

Indian Americans have nonetheless proven to be a loyal voting block for the Democrats, notwithstanding the gratuitous bigoted insults that are uttered from time to time by top party leaders. Hillary Clinton, presumably attempting to make a joke about the large number of Indian-owned small businesses, once pretended to confuse Mahatma Gandhi with a guy who “ran a gas station down in St. Louis.” Not to be outdone, Joe Biden offered this brilliant insight during the 2008 campaign: “You cannot go to a 7-11 or a Dunkin’ Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent.” The mainstream media greeted these displays of bigotry with a collective yawn, since the inept comedians were Democrats and the butts of their jokes were Indians. For whatever reason, the liberal humor police don’t shield Indians from ethnic ridicule in the same way they shield other groups.

Since Republicans don’t have mainstream media to protect them, they have to be more mindful of their rhetoric. Kashkari’s principal Republican rival in the race, Tim Donnelly, told a crowd during the height of the Iraq War that illegal immigration was an “insurgency” and that we “need to begin to root out the insurgency in cities like Los Angeles, Chicago and New York, just as we are doing in Baghdad, Samarra and Tikrit.” That type of angry rhetoric scares legal immigrants, making them feel under suspicion. It is not the stuff of which rainbows, on the right or otherwise, are built.

As we prepare to celebrate the many contributions that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have made to this country, it is a good time for Republicans to contemplate how best to welcome more members of those communities — and other minority communities as well—into their big tent. A good start would be to change the face of the party to look less like Tim Donnelly — and more like Neel Kashkari.

David B. Cohen served in the administration of President George W. Bush as U.S. Representative to the Pacific Community, as Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior, and as a member of the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. He is the author of Left-Hearted, Right-Minded: Why Conservative Policies Are The Best Way To Achieve Liberal Ideals.