Republicans found the 2006 midterm elections unwinnable for three basic reasons. The Democratic base was energized, the Republican base was dispirited, and independents swung heavily toward the Democrats. If all three of these things remain true this year, 2008 won’t look much better. But what if you can’t solve the third problem by fixing the second?
Conservatives initially argued that the Republicans lost their majorities because President Bush and other GOP elected officials failed to act like conservatives. As Republican frontrunner-of-the-week John McCain likes to put it, “We went to Washington to change Washington, but it changed us.” There’s more than a kernel of truth in such observations. But other conservatives noticed that Republican red meat wasn’t resonating with swing voters as it once did and began to contemplate a more frightening possibility: that they had run out of things to say that the persuadable portion of the electorate wanted to hear.
This is the dilemma that concerns David Frum in his latest book. He notes that the themes and policies that won elections in 1980 and 1994 are insufficient today because the country faces different problems than it did 28 or even 14 years ago. The right’s failure to grapple with these changes has left it ill equipped to govern — or perhaps even win elections — in the 21st century. “On issues from Social Security to health care to environmental protection, conservatives find themselves on the less popular side of the great issues of the day,” Frum writes. “That does not mean that conservatives are wrong. But it does mean that we are likely to lose if we continue repeating old formulas without adapting them to new times.”
While Frum doesn’t hold back in criticizing the president he once considered The Right Man, he contends that Bush understood the need to change better than many of his conservative critics. Had Bush run in 2000 as a “Reagan-style conservative,” he argues, Al Gore surely would have become president. If Bush had heeded his right flank and rebuffed the expensive Medicare prescription drug benefit — Frum recalls that “public support for the benefit ranged between 80 percent and 90 percent through the first Bush term” — he probably wouldn’t have been reelected.
It’s incontrovertible that Bush often aped Clinton-style centrism during the 2000 race, making conservative hopes that he would turn out to be a government-cutter more the product of wishful thinking than anything else. But it doesn’t ring true to suggest, as Frum does, that the hapless Bob Dole campaigned as a “Reagan-style conservative” in 1996 while George W. Bush ran as something different. That is certainly not how most Republicans saw either candidate at the time, surely for reasons other than self-delusion. It may seem like ancient history now, but conservatives bonded with Bush in a way they hadn’t with any president — or any GOP leader, including the irascible Newt Gingrich — since Reagan.
Another problem: What did Bush’s concessions profit Republicans in the long run? Democrats regained their traditional advantages on Medicare and education not long after the drug benefit and No Child Left Behind. Bush barely won the 2000 and 2004 elections. Conservatives are already trying to discover ways to win again.
Like his important 1994 book Dead Right, Comeback is trenchant and thoughtful but the two volumes sometimes differ sharply in their recommendations and analysis. In Frum’s latest, Reagan is successful but irrelevant because his mix of anti-statism, across-the-board tax-cutting, and deregulation offer solutions to the problems of “forty years before” rather than today. In Dead Right, Reagan was largely a failure because his record didn’t match his small government rhetoric.
The difference may tell you something about the perils of divining a movement’s fortunes based on one or two bad election cycles. Yet Frum had a point back in the 1990s when he argued that conservatism’s prospects appear grim once you accept a growing federal government as a given. Look at how hard he must strain in Comeback to come up with new ideas for conservatives once he accepts government growth as a given himself.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
The debacle of this president’s administration is both a cause and a symptom of the decline of American values. Unless Congress impeaches him, that decline will go on unchecked. An eminent jurist surveys the damage and assesses the chances for the recovery of our culture.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
The American Christmas, like the songs that celebrate it, makes room for everybody under the rainbow. Is that why so many people seem to be hostile to it?
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?