Politics & Policy

Coming Back to David Frum

Debating the conservative future.

In the latest edition of NR, I gave David Frum’s Comeback: Conservatism that Can Win Again a mixed review. On his page, he has written a lengthy reply to it (and to another review). His comeback is weaker than his Comeback.

I said that he was better at diagnosing conservatism’s problems than in devising remedies. He pleads in response that it is important to diagnose the problems. I agree. That’s why I praised him for several paragraphs for doing it.

#ad#He writes that in a recent cover story on the troubles of conservatism, Rich Lowry and I “flinched from any recognition that we as conservatives have any rethinking to do of our own ideas.” He takes exception to a passage in which we suggest that the “most plausible path toward a renewed center-right majority involves consolidating and deepening the trend of the decades before 2006: holding on to as much of the existing conservative coalition as possible while adding more downscale voters who lean right on social issues.” Frum says that this advice amounts to telling conservatives to repeat themselves, “only louder and slower.” And he suggests three flaws in our analysis.

Before getting to them, though, let me point out that in an entire book about how conservatives and Republicans can make a comeback, at no point does Frum offer a word of advice about which voters are likely recruits for a new center-right coalition. So it isn’t as though Frum can say that the strategy he recommends is superior to the one Lowry and I discuss. He has none.

As for his three criticisms: He says that “traditional conservatism offers few answers” to the concerns of downscale voters. Well, then, let’s come up with better conservative answers. It’s not as though Lowry and I were denying the need for new policies. Second, he says that downscale Hispanic voters won’t join the GOP based on social issues alone. True: Who said they would? But a party that combined conservative social positions with economic policies that help lower middle class voters could have some appeal to Hispanic voters. Third, Frum says that “torquing up social conservatism has serious political costs.” Indeed it does. Lowry and I never said anything about torquing up social conservatism. The passage he quotes merely implies that the party should continue to be socially conservative, which is a different thing.

Frum then writes:

We all have our vices, and yes, I have always had a tendency toward deviationism. I see new things, and I think new thoughts. It’s a bad habit I know, but my efforts to suppress it have been unavailing.

About this passage, I will say only two things. I do not think it will come across as Frum intends it to come across. And I did not criticize him for thinking new thoughts.

Frum moves on to obesity, against which he thinks conservatives should crusade. He seems to believe that the resistance among conservatives to taking up this crusade is traceable largely to the lobbying of the food-industrial complex, or something. He answers none of the questions I raised about whether this crusade would accomplish anything. Nor does he respond to my point that it hardly seems likely to lead to a conservative comeback.

Abortion is Frum’s next topic. He argues that since pro-choicers outnumber pro-lifers — averaging out the recent polls, by the way, the gap between them is in single digits — the politics of abortion will turn against Republicans if they overturn Roe. Here, our brave thinker of new thoughts is recycling conventional wisdom, and in a rather strange context. If his book’s premises are correct, then Republicans are unlikely to succeed in getting Roe overturned any time soon. Frum writes that his book “tries to think through what Republicans might do” in a post-Roe world, which is not really true. (For my own thoughts on that subject, and how the politics of abortion might play out post-Roe, see the last chapter of my own book.)

Frum then gets to his concluding point.

I am naturally very pleased that Ramesh and Antle agree at least that there is value in the project I’ve undertaken. I don’t know however that we agree on what the project is. I’m less concerned to change conservatism’s content than I am to change conservatism’s method. What our party needs is not more “moderation.” It is more empiricism.

Well, I can’t speak for Antle, but I pointed out that Frum wants more empiricism and did not say anything about “moderation.” But now that he mentions it, if he doesn’t want “to change conservatism’s content” doesn’t that make him a flincher? (My chief problem with Frum’s “empiricism” is that it is mostly theoretical.)

[I]t is not at all clear to me that the halls of government are lined with conservatives eager to improve upon my faltering first attempts. . . .

I don’t see much serious effort anywhere to improve upon the ideas offered in Comeback. As I talk to conservative radio shows and Republican audiences, indeed, I see tremendous resistance to any push for change. I don’t group Ramesh and Antle among the resisters. Indeed both have written boldly about the need for change in general. It’s change in particular that is always the problem.

For the record, I have offered some ideas on tax policy that are considerably further away from the conventional conservative platform than Frum’s. But listen to what he is saying: So some of the ideas I’m offering may be bad, but at least they’re new! It is true that conservatives resist a style of thinking that values new ideas for their newness instead of their merit. Long may they continue to do so.

Ramesh Ponnuru — Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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