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The Conservative Comeback: A How-To Guide By: Bill Steigerwald
FrontPageMagazine.com | Monday, January 28, 2008

Conservatism has lost much of its appeal to young and independent voters. The Republican Party is on the ropes. The White House and Congress increasingly look like they'll be controlled by Democrats for a long time. In Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again (Doubleday), David Frum, the American Enterprise Institute scholar and former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, says if conservatives and Republicans want to recover their power they must change their message and adapt to new political realities. The National Review Online columnist says conservatism's red-meat issues -- low taxes, gun rights and promises to restore traditional values -- don't cut it anymore. I reached Frum on Wednesday at his hotel room in Toronto.

Q: What’s the 60-second synopsis of what your book is about?
A: The Republican Party, which was so dominant in American politics from about 1970 to about 1995, has been running out of gas for the past decade. It’s not just Iraq, and it’s not just George Bush. We’ve got deeper problems of exhaustion of our message and we must renew that message. I am trying in “Comeback” to offer specific ideas based on the needs of the country for renewal

Q: Why did you write this book and who is it for?
A: I wrote the book because of my own concern that the conservative movement that I had grown up in was in so much danger. I wrote it for anyone who would care to read it, but I mostly wrote it for my fellow conservatives and fellow Republicans, to make them feel the seriousness of the problem; second, to offer some conclusions; and third, even if people don’t like the particular solutions I offer, to show them how we ought to be thinking about politics -- how we need to have an approach based on empiricism and reality and less on the way we wish things were than on accepting things as they are.

Q: How do you define your conservatism and is it fundamentally at odds with Goldwater or Reagan conservatism?
A: I don’t go in for these factional subdivisions. I don’t like to say I’m this kind of conservative or that kind of conservative. I’m somebody who believes in markets, who believes in rule of law, who believes in less government and I’m certainly a strong believer in America’s mission in the world. That’s where I tend to come from. What I’m struck with by Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater, each of them was an innovator. One of the questions you get asked a lot is “What would Ronald Reagan do if he were alive today?” I can’t really answer that question. I do know this: He would not do what he did in 1980, because he was an innovator. Great politicians are like artists. They are sensitive to their times. They absorb what’s in the air. They sense the needs of the country at a particular moment.
For example, one of the great concerns that America felt in the late 1970s ... it wasn’t just that government was failing in the late 1970s. All of the institutions in American life were failing. The car companies were failing. You couldn’t put up a beautiful building anymore. Nothing seemed to work. People were unhappy that government wasn’t working, but in a funny way they weren’t shocked, because nothing worked.
Today, 2008, almost all the institutions of American life work brilliantly. You want to send a package -- the package goes. You walk into a new building – it’s gorgeous. You take delivery of your new car – it works. So the fact that government doesn’t work is a much more specific problem. That’s why events like Katrina were so terribly damaging. We are in an era where Americans have great confidence in their society in a way that they didn’t in Ronald Reagan’s time, but they are just disappointed again and again by their government – and Republicans have been in charge of that government for a long time. So when they are disappointed in their government, they are disappointed in Republicans.

Q: You essentially are saying the conservatives or Republicans have to adapt to a changed America. How so?
A: Let me give you one example: We know that how you vote when you are in your 20s casts a shadow that affects how you vote for the rest of your life. The people who turned 20 between 1985 and 1990 are the most Republican cohort in the entire electorate; these are the Reagan voters. They saw Reagan, they saw his politics work, and they’ve been rewarding him ever since. The people who turned 20 between 2000 and 2005 are the most anti-Republican group in the entire electorate – more anti-Republican than the “Watergate babies,” more anti-Republican than the G.I. Bill Generation, the people who turned 20 after World War II. This is a big problem. One reason they are so anti-Republican is that we neglect the environmental issue, which is very important to them.

Another way the country has changed is that in Ronald Reagan’s time immigration was a challenge and a difficulty, but it was not an overwhelming problem in a way that it has since 1980 become an overwhelming problem. We’re looking at a situation where since 2000 about 8 or 9 million people have entered the United States, at least half of them illegally. These immigrants are of very low skill. They are not catching up to the incomes of the native born. When they are legal they are net beneficiaries of the tax system, they are not net contributors. This is a problem that was once at the margins of politics and it’s come to the center.

Q: For instance, environmentalism, what does conservatism or Republicans – are you more worried about the Republican Party of conservatism?
A: Both. The Republican Party is the only institutional vehicle for conservative politics, so you can’t really separate the two. There are obviously distinctions, but they flourish or decline together.

Q: So how does the Republican Party handle an issue like environmentalism without turning into Al Gore Lite?
A: Two ways: The first is the Republican Party has a history that most people don’t know. Of the major pieces of environmental legislation passed since 1970, almost all of them were passed under Republican presidents – The Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the 1990 Clean Air Act, which put an end to the acid rain problem, effectively. These are Republican accomplishments: Talk about them. People think of the Democrats as the party that owns the environmental issue because it talks about the environmental issue even though it doesn’t do much about it. You need to remind people of what you’ve done, because the voters don’t see it as their job to remember your achievements, they see it as the party’s job to remind them of its achievements.

The second thing is that it is precisely because we are not Al Gore fanatics that this issue is powerful for us. That is to say that we can offer Americans a message that says, “Look, we take this issue seriously, too. But we’re not going to go overboard. We’re going to do what’s necessary, not more.” For us, it is purely an issue of good sense, whereas for Gore, it’s a substitute for religion. Or, to put it even more bluntly, “Look, Gore-type environmentalists have been wanting to take your car away for 60 years for whatever reason they can find. If it wasn’t global warming, it would be something else. This is what they have always wanted to do. They have wanted to take away your car. They don’t like suburbs. They want to stop the trend of American life. We are not trying to achieve anything other than a cleaner environment. That’s it. We have a more limited and more rational agenda than they do.”

Q: And this is something that will appeal to young people and women and help the Republican Party regain its majority?
A: The Republican majority that dominated American politics for the last third of the 20th century was built by Nixon and by Reagan, and it was built on the votes of middle-class, middle-aged, married, church-going, native-born, white parents. That group of people is a smaller fraction of the country than it used to be. If that’s your voter base, your future is going to look kind of bleak.

Q: You have been taken to task by some of your fellow conservatives for coming up with the idea that government should address obesity as a social problem, the way it does teen pregnancy.
A: This is one of my points about the need for a more empirical conservatism. This form of debate occurs a lot:
Conservative No.1 says, “Obesity cost is a growing health problem. It has a huge fiscal impact. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that about one health dollar in 10 is spent to counter the health effects of obesity. Of course, the government is the single largest purchaser of health care, so this is a big drag on the public treasury and it’s something that the public therefore is entitled to be concerned about.”
Conservative No. 2: “This is anti-conservative thinking. It’s nobody’s business but your own how much you weigh and the government shouldn’t have anything to say about it.”
Conservative No. 1: “But what about the fiscal cost?”
Conservative No. 2: “Well, they wouldn’t be a problem if Medicare and Medicaid didn’t exist.”
That’s true. That’s a very good point. And when they go away, then we can stop worrying about it again. So you let me know your plan to make them go away.

This is where the fantasy element comes in – that you point out that because this welfare state exists, that means that people who want to limit government face certain kinds of new challenges. And then you’ll be told that’s an un-conservative way of thought; the conservative way to think is that these problems would not be proper public problems if the welfare state did not exist.

Well, thanks. But that’s not politics. Politics is dealing with things as they are. By the way I have this argument with my good friend Steve Moore (of the Wall Street Journal), who says if we didn’t have all these social welfare programs then open immigration would not be a problem. Right. True. That would be true. But we do have them and they are not going away.

Q: You’re saying that conservatism, in order to regain its majority, doesn’t have to jettison its core ideas and principles.
A: Keep your principles. The art of politics is holding on to your principles and applying them to new situations. Where you fail at politics is when you turn the policies into principles. We have a rule in our party – there should never be any new taxes. Now that’s a policy; we’ve made it a principle. The result of making it a principle is that since there are never any new taxes -- and if as conservatives we are not really prepared to take on Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, which we’re not; we’re prepared maybe to reorganize them in a more market-based way -- that means we are committed to retaining the same old taxes. That makes reform impossible.

For example, I think we need to eliminate the corporate income tax. I think it’s a really important economic priority. The corporate income tax is higher in the United States than in France. It introduces all kinds of dislocations. I want to see the capital gains tax go to zero and I want to see the taxes on corporate dividends go to zero. There’s more I’d like to see: I’d like to see the child tax credit creditable against payroll taxes and I’d like to see serious reform in the Alternative Minimum tax.

But by saying those things – I don’t have the numbers in front of me – but I’ve removed hundreds of billions of dollars of revenue from the federal treasury. So what do I do about that? Well, I can I say it doesn’t matter -- the deficits are not a problem. I can say we’re going to cut spending accordingly. I know that’s not going to happen. I can ignore the whole problem and pretend it’s not there, as people do when they say we don’t have to think about the public fiscal consequences of obesity. Or I can say if I am forfeiting these revenues, I’m kind of pessimistic about my ability to do much to restrain government spending in the face of the baby boomers’ retirement, I need to make up these revenues somewhere else, what’s the least destructive way I can do that? That’s the way I approach this problem.

Q: You’re getting some grief from traditional conservatives who say that basically you’ve forgotten that big government is the enemy and that ….
A: Here’s the way I feel about that – and this is maybe relevant to the big stock market meltdown we’re having right now. I feel like the guy who’s walking into the office of the boss with the big ledger and saying, “Boss, you know all those loans that we made? They’re not going to be paid.” And he throws the ink well at my head. I can’t really blame him. Obviously it’s upsetting news. I’ll admit, some of those are loans I authorized myself. But they are not going to be paid. Now we have to deal with that reality. So don’t tell me you don’t like the reality. If you can demonstrate that I am wrong, then I am wrong. But don’t just get impatient and say, “I wish it wasn’t this way. I don’t like hearing this.” Certainly don’t say, “Well, let’s get though our defeat in November and then think about it.”

There is this unspoken assumption among a lot of Republicans that maybe a defeat in November might not be such a bad thing and the right thing to do is go down with the ship and then we can return to the true Reagan principles and the party will be stronger for it. Well, if we lose in November, when this ship goes down, it’s going to be a big vortex in the sea. We face the possibility of having a strong Democratic president, an increased majority for the Democrats in both houses of Congress. The way will be open for a new burst of governmental activism, which we have not seen before. Bill Clinton tried it in 1993, and he failed. Jimmy Carter’s plans blew up on the launch pad.

The last time we’ve seen a successfully burst of Democratic activism was 1964-65. We are in real danger of seeing a similar thing again, and it will be pretty negative for the future of the country. That’s one possibility. Another is, when you lose in this way, you can often lose for a very long time. Parties that lose often react not by adapting but by retreating to their core principles and becoming even more of a minority party than ever. We can all see how that happened with the Democrats. After the defeat of 1980, how do they respond? They revert to their old New Deal roots in 1984 and offer Walter Mondale saying “Everything that Roosevelt and Truman didn’t do, I’ll do.” They got beat worse in 1984 than they got beat in 1980. Then they got beat in 1988. Even in 1992, they were only back up to 42 percent of the vote.

If you get on to a bad path in politics, you can be out for a long time. When is the Republican congressional majority going to return? It’s not something where you say, “Well, we’ll lose and then we’ll recover.” It’s hard to recover in American politics.

Q: Has President Bush helped or hurt conservatism over the last seven years?
A: I would say he’s hurt, but I would have to give him credit for this: He in 1998 and 1999 really did correctly notice that something new needed to be done. His solution was to come up with a new marketing slogan – compassionate conservatism, which was unfortunately empty. And though that worked – it helped him get elected in 2000 – it did not provide a sufficient basis for government. The result was his government was not very successful. But he did have some accurate perceptions about the kind of problems the party faced.

Q: And you I suspect would not credit the war in Iraq as being a major source of conservatism’s problems?
A: Of course it is -- the mismanagement of it, and the lack of success. But I would also say that just looking at it narrowly from a political point of view – I mean, you don’t fight wars for political reasons you fight them because you feel you must. But without the foreign policy component George Bush would not have won reelection in 2004. What was the case for reelecting President Bush in 2004?

Q: To keep us safe.
A: Exactly. There wasn’t a lot of accomplishment other than that. The national security argument remains the most powerful of all arguments. Of the case for the GOP, the part that remains most powerful even now is the national security part. However, the Republicans used to be regarded as the more competent of the two parties and we’re not any more. Iraq is a big part of that and Katrina is the rest.

Q: How has your book and its suggestions been received by your fellow conservatives?
A: There’s obviously considerable resistance, but that’s OK. That word means something – conservatives are resistant. And that’s good. They’re not gimmicky. They don’t respond over eagerly to new idea. But I’m going to keep working on them. I’m going to be doing this for along time and I very much fear that if my predictions are right, I’m going to have a very long time in which to do it.

Bill Steigerwald is the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's associate editor. Call him at (412) 320-7983. E-mail him at: bsteigerwald@tribweb.com.

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