If you listened only to talk radio, you might not realize that behind the conservative ascendancy were some powerful intellectual ideas, honed by political thinkers such as David Frum. They were the people who gave direction to the “Reagan Revolution,” but they had been disappointed by George H.W. Bush and stymied by the political skills of Bill Clinton. And they had expected the world of George W. Bush.
In George W. Bush, they felt they had a pure Republican: an untrammeled conservative who would make America respected abroad and rich at home. As Newt Gingrich, the former Republican speaker of the House, told a gathering at the American Enterprise Institute in early 2001, Bush would be a “transformational president.”
What Gingrich did not say was that AEI, a conservative think tank, would play a critical role in advising and staffing the Bush administration. It was the home to many neoconservatives, some old-line men and women of the right, and a cadre of thinkers with very strong views about the Middle East and the Arab-Israeli conflict.
While AEI is still close to the administration, it is now the home of revisionists who believe that Bush has damaged conservatism and betrayed some of its core objectives, such as shrinking the size of government.
Central to the new thinking at AEI is David Frum. He was too young to influence the Reagan years. But during the Clinton tenancy at the White House, he was building a war chest of conservative ideas.
Frum writes books that influence those who call the shots in Washington. A list of their titles is revealing: “Dead Right,” “What’s Right,” “How We Got Here: The 70’s,” “An End To Evil,” and “The Right Man.” The latter is an impassioned defense of Bush, which Frum wrote after he left his speechwriting job at the White House–which is where he entered the pantheon of the memorable by putting three words into a State of the Union address: “axis of evil.”
Now Frum is the voice of the disillusioned right. His latest book, entitled “Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again,” is both a call to arms and a fairly specific assault on what has happened to conservatism in the nation and in the White House.
“Americans are trapped in obsolete politics, engaging in phony arguments over issues that are in fact largely settled,” Frum says in the book. “Political partisans fail to learn from their opponents even when they discover something new and true.”
The nation, according to Frum, has solved many of the problems that defined the politics of the 1970s and 1980s. New challenges call for new creativity, he says.
This is his indictment:
· “America’s war on terror is not being won; the struggle for world economic leadership looks to many as if it is being lost.
· “Standards of living are stagnating for the American middle class because health care costs zoom uncontrollably.
· “High energy costs transfer the world’s wealth to thug regimes, even as evidence accumulates of serious environmental risks from the fuels we burn.
· “The United States seems increasingly divided by race and class, and individual Americans express mounting alienation from their political system.
· “New medical technologies offer dazzling cures and therapies—and present horrifying moral dilemmas.”
Frum says that instead of addressing these challenges, the political system seems capable only of polarizing
He believes that conservatives should stop denying realities like the mess in health care, the insecurity of the middle class, the evidence of global climate change, and the rise of China. Also, he believes that foreign policy should be more flexible in order to be more successful. In fact, the author of the axis of evil told the AEI gathering that the United States should offer to restore diplomatic relations with Iran.
Other radical offerings from Frum: make private health insurance available to every American; lower taxes on savings and investment, financed by higher taxes on energy and pollution; promote federal policies to encourage larger families; make reductions in unskilled immigration; launch a compassionate conservative campaign for prison reform, and government action against the public health disaster of obesity.
At the reception afterwards, some of the high priests of conservatism were nodding approvingly, and the books were selling briskly.