I recently took out a copy of David Frum’s Comeback: Conservatism that Can Win Again from the library. Frum has been in the news recently with his attempts to build a reformist conservatism butting heads against more doctrinaire conservatives like Rush Limbaugh. Last week on Frum’s blog, New Majority, he published some rather critical comments about Limbaugh’s speech at CPAC, which raised the ire of El Rushbo and Mark Levin. But don’t cry for Frum, he got a cover story in the latest Newsweek out of the fracus.
Republicans should be listening to their reformist conservatives these days, like Frum or Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam–or even the true outsider conservatives like historian Daniel Larison–more so than the talk radio purity enforcers. That said, I was underwhelmed with Comeback. I think part of its weakness is that it was written in fall of 2007, before the party nominees for 2008 were picked, so it already feels dated. Secondly, on some important matters it wasn’t reformist enough.
Something I appreciate about the reformists (Frum as well as Douthat and Salam in Grand New Party) is that they understand that the growing wealth divide in this country is a real issue, not just “class warfare,” and it is a political liability for Republicans. Statistics show that the more class stratified an area is, the more likely it is to vote Democrat. Cities that have very rich and very poor people are Democratic bastions, but areas that have a broad middle class and little wealth difference between neighbors are reliably Republican. And as if we needed a recession to tell us, middle class life is increasingly unstable, with stagnant wages for most, high levels of consumer debt, and growing healthcare expenses taking a bite out of everyday people’s pocketbooks. Frum takes some reasonable conservative stabs at what Republicans can do to fix healthcare, in lieu of letting the Democrats have their way and nationalizing it. He also tackles education and the environment, two perennial middle class “quality of life” issues. The environmental chapter in particular is a worthwhile alternative to the subsidy love that Washington typically displays (see also, Barack Obama’s budget). Frum proposes eliminating subsidies on alternative fuels, but raising taxes on oil and gas so that they are price competitive with alternative fuels, and letting the options battle it out in the marketplace. In essence, Al Gore’s carbon tax. He’d offset the tax hikes with a large payroll tax cut.
On the other hand, the chapter on supporting marriage and big families was odd. While it is true that family instability is a big working class and poor problem, and there might be room for political maneuvering by the GOP there, he advocated more social engineering than any conservative should be comfortable with.
I dinged Grand New Party in my review of it for ignoring foreign policy completely. Frum talks foreign policy, but his agenda is mostly cold leftovers. He repeats the comforting myth that the Democrats are the “internationalists” while the Republicans are “nationalists” and “patriots.” This ignores the fact that the GOP is free trade and its business class was behind the Bush administration’s failed comprehensive immigration reform. Two “internationalist” positions. And the book was written too early to account for the revival of leftist patriotism under Barack Obama.
Secondly, the man who gave us the “Axis of Evil” is still wedded to the concepts of the War on Terror and U.S. global hegemony. Of all the GOP orthodoxies, these are the only ones the reformists never touch. You have to be a complete outsider like Larison or Ron Paul to do that. Frum thinks the U.S. should spare no life or expense to support American economic and political hegemony around the globe. And while many Americans are turning toward diplomacy and realism in foreign policy, Frum wants the GOP to stay on the Bush path. That said, I give him credit for his idea on trying to open up India. India is the world’s largest democracy and an English speaker, and could be turned into a key ally against Communist China and a collapsing Pakistan.
I can only give Comeback a lukewarm recommendation. It is a vision for where conservatism can go, but not a compelling one.