Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again
By David Frum
(Doubleday, 224 pages, $24.95)
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.
Sometimes his efforts bear fruit. On immigration, racial preferences, and same-sex marriage, Frum outlines useful ways for conservatives to navigate these culture war minefields, addressing the American majority’s anxieties without pointless scapegoating or demagoguery. Frum advocates lowering the tax bills of a key Republican constituency — families with children — who decreasingly benefit from income tax rate reductions. He would index the child tax credit to inflation and expand it to benefit all working parents. Orthodox supply-siders are unlikely to be enthusiastic about this approach, correctly protesting that such policies won’t do much to accelerate economic growth. But work isn’t the only behavior conservatives would like to incentivize and growth isn’t the only goal.
Then Frum starts reaching. Prison reform may be a good idea, but is it really an issue on which to build a new Republican majority? Frum asks, “Why shouldn’t Republicans adopt the obesity issue as our own?” Maybe because doing so would encourage fat jokes about Dennis Hastert; maybe because it is hard to imagine what a conservative government could really do about the problem. Frum is unfailingly persuasive about the conservative ideas deficit but when he presents his own solutions this reviewer often wonders — if you’ll pardon the Reagan-era expression — “Where’s the beef?”
Frum seems to favor a conservatism that is more pragmatic and less ideological (except on foreign policy, where it should be less pragmatic and more ideological). He asks pro-lifers to tone it down even though abortion is one of the few remaining issues where Republicans enjoy a net advantage and without showing much attention to the details. For example, South Dakota did vote to repeal its strict antiabortion law, but by less than a 3-to-2 margin, not 8-to-1.
Reagan solved real problems using conservative principles. That means adapting to new problems, not new principles. Frum comes close when he points out the extent to which the government, rather than the market, distorts our health care system. Then he ends up suggesting that the government should force individuals to buy medical insurance. His green conservatism also starts out promisingly but falls short. Raising energy prices for ordinary people through carbon taxes to pay for investment tax cuts for the affluent — no matter how defensible both policies are separately — sounds like almost the opposite of a winning strategy.
In the end, the next generation’s Milton Friedmans and Bill Buckleys can’t be discovered in a day. The arguments and ideas Frum so convincingly encourages conservatives to develop can’t be perfected in an election cycle. Frum once argued that “conservative intellectuals should be at work on something a little more ambitious than the Republican Party’s next campaign manifesto.” He was dead right the first time.