Frum argues that if he “urged a big federal abstinence-promotion program to deal with” teen pregnancy rather than a public campaign against obesity his “conservative credentials would go unquestioned.” The programs might not have been “big,” but the Bush administration has used federal dollars to promote abstinence and marriage. Empirically, it is not clear that these programs have worked. Understanding as we do the limits of government, conservatives ought to be automatically skeptical of such an approach. Frum would have to offer more evidence than he does that a Washington war on obesity would actually work. Identifying a problem is not a sufficient justification for a government solution.
On abortion, Frum argues the pro-life position could become a political liability if Roe v. Wade is overturned. Of course, a Republican would have to win in 2008 for there to be any chance of that happening in the near future. And there is no guarantee that the next Republican president will be able to win confirmation of a justice who will overturn Roe — or, for that matter, that President Bush’s justices would vote to reverse rather than nibble away at the decision.
That said, if Roe falls a lot will depend on the pro-life movement’s response. If they react by trying to pass South Dakota-style no-exceptions bans in all 50 states, Frum is probably right. If they stick to their current incremental strategy, there is more politically feasible progress that could be made toward pro-life goals. Pro-lifers haven’t yet gotten everything they can get, and they showed that they can adapt to changing political circumstances back in the 1990s. Steve Forbes is best known for his flat tax but he had some good advice for pro-lifers: “Where there is consensus, codify. Where there is no consensus, persuade.”
Overall, I think Frum has started a valuable discussion that most major Republicans don’t seem to want to have. But I worry that slighting Reaganism will lead either to conservative failure or a worse conservatism. Ronald Reagan succeded by applying conservative principles to the electorate’s real problems. The next successful conservatism will find free-market solutions to health care and rising energy costs, traditionalist answers to the challenges of family breakdown and assimilation, a response to terrorism rooted in a strong national defense. Those ideological principles aren’t adequate by themselves, but we shouldn’t start a rethinking by conceding that conservatism doesn’t have much to offer the American people. If we believe that, we should consider becoming liberals.
Problems and specific solutions change, but our principles don’t have to.
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