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Conservatives in the wilderness

The Economist posed five questions for David Frum, a former speechwriter for President George Bush and founder of, a political Web site devoted to "building a conservatism that can win again."

The Economist: The other week you wrote, "Conservatives stopped taking governance seriously — and so Americans ceased to trust conservatives in government." Now in opposition, what can Republicans do to win back this trust? (And are they doing it?)

Frum: Republicans must do two things now: (a) provide examples of effective governance at the state level and (b) articulate a clear and convincing alternative to the Obama policies at the federal level.

We are seeing some good results from a: the examples set by Jon Huntsman in Utah, Charlie Crist in Florida and Bobby Jindal in Louisiana head the list. As to b, however, the results are not so good. On the $800 billion stimulus and now on the multitrillion budget, Republicans have made clear what they oppose, but not what they favor. Rather than offer a grab bag of tax measures as our substitute stimulus, we should have rallied to a payroll tax holiday: a clear and powerful single alternative idea. Instead of fighting the science on climate change, we should champion nuclear power against the Obama administration's preference for costly, subsidized wind and solar power.

Is today's Republican Party too beholden to social conservatives?

Today's Republican Party is too beholden to factions generally. No social conservative has ever done the party as much harm as those Republicans who kept insisting against the facts that the Bush economy was "the greatest story never told." The greatest problem Republicans faced in 2006 and 2008 was not Iraq but the stagnation in personal incomes since 2000 — and yet we refused even to acknowledge the fact, never mind rethink policy to deal with it.

At the same time, we have evidence (like a Muhlenberg College survey of the half-million-plus Pennsylvania Republicans who reaffiliated as Democrats between 2004 and 2008) that a perception of our party as excessively religious and sectarian is doing us tremendous harm.

Let's look ahead 10 years. What positions that are inarguable to today's Republicans, will future Republican candidates leave by the wayside?

Ten years from now, Republicans will have left behind today's dismissive attitudes on environmental questions. They will be immersed — as all Americans will be — in the problem of how to pay for a baby boomer retirement for which too little provision was made when it would have made a difference, back in the 1990s.

Oh, and they will also have rejected the open immigration policies of George Bush and John McCain. In the years ahead of slow recovery, long debt payback, and increased social welfare demand, the addition of millions of low-skilled workers to the U.S. labor pool in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s will look at least as unwise as any of the financial errors of the time.

Conservatism has a proud tradition of intellectual thinkers — Burke, Hayek, Von Mises, Friedman, Buckley, etc. Who do you credit with carrying on that tradition today? Whose ideas do you value among today's thinkers?

James Q. Wilson and Charles Murray continue to dominate among today's public policy intellectuals. Greg Mankiw and Robert Barro continue the eminence of market-oriented economics, even if their ideas are less directly applicable to public policy than those of the George Stiglers and Milton Friedmans 30 years ago.

Our new American Enterprise Institute president, Arthur Brooks, has published two really path-breaking books with a third soon to a follow in a subject area he more or less invented: happiness studies. John Podhoretz is rejuvenating Commentary and I hear hope of a revival of Public Interest under Yuval Levin. I think Mark Krikorian and Steve Camorata are doing important work on immigration at the Center for Immigration Studies.

That acknowledged, it's also true that we on the right are largely living off intellectual inventory these days. Among those I would have picked out in say 1990 as likely to become the most important conservative intellectuals of the year 2010, some have shifted left (Fareed Zakaria, Brink Lindsey, Mark Lilla), some have turned away from public policy to history (Anne Applebaum, Jay Winick, Richard Brook-hiser), and many others have drifted out of political life altogether, to business or academia.

As a result, much of what passes for intellectual life on the right is a product for local consumption only, like those Argentine-made television sets that could exist only behind the old Peronist tariff walls. Unlike Hayek and Friedman, it has no impact at all on the thinking of those not already committed to the ideology from which it emerges. It's a sorry situation, and it has very ominous real world consequences: It means that conservatism as a body of ideas will not attract the best minds among the young and open, in the way that it was often able to do in previous generations.

People often talk about a Republican collapse, but what do you think the Democrats are doing right?

Democrats in Congress have said "No" to organized labor on its demand to eliminate secret ballots before union certification. To date, the Obama administration has brushed off demands from its angrier constituencies to impose some kind of legal sanction on those in the Bush administration who made national security decisions with which Democrats have disagreed.

They have not acted precipitately in Iraq, they have not granted a blank check to the auto companies, and they have shown impressive open-mindedness and adaptability in addressing the crisis in the banking sector — even if they have been awfully slow to arrive at a credible final policy. And, of course, President Obama himself has shown great calm, reassurance and dignity in office. The "reset" of tone in U.S. foreign relations is a great service both to America and the world.

Those are all good things. Not sure they're worth $800 billion in wasteful stimulus spending though.

Conservatives in the wilderness 04/18/09 [Last modified: Saturday, April 18, 2009 4:30am]
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