How conservative critics of conservatism are explaining the conservative comeback.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Oct. 5 2010 5:00 PM

Right as Ever

How conservative critics of conservatism are explaining the conservative comeback.

David Frum. Click image to expand.
David Frum

The Great Recession has done wonders for the Republican Party. Two years after being tossed out of power at every level, it's about to waltz right back in, kicking aside the corpses of Democrats foolish enough to go along with the designs of Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. This is good news for most conservatives. It's slightly worse news for a smaller group of conservatives—namely, the ones who spent the end of the '00s explaining why a Republican comeback like this was not really possible.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

Take, for example, Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, whose 2005 Weekly Standard cover story, "The Party of Sam's Club," looked ahead to the end of the Bush presidency as a challenge for Republicans. They advised the party to "take the 'big-government conservatism' vision that George W. Bush and Karl Rove have hinted at but failed to develop, and give it coherence and sustainability." Among the big ideas: wage subsidies, a mandate to purchase health insurance, and "pro-family" tax reforms that would raise rates for some people.

In 2008 the authors expanded this argument into a book, Grand New Party, and the intervening years didn't put much rust on the thesis. "Some combination of the populist Left and the neoliberal center is likely to emerge as America's next political majority," they mused. They had data to back up their trends. But it now appears that the GOP is about to win without tapping into any of that stuff. The conservative movement's smart set, the people who liberals considered serious critics who could remake the right, really had nothing to do with the Republican Party's great comeback.

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So I checked in with Douthat, Salam, and David Frum, all conservatives who opened the Obama era with prescriptions for conservative comebacks that played no role in the current conservative comeback. They stood by almost all of their analyses. And they greeted the coming Republican rout as an opportunity that might be wasted, because the party hadn't done enough deep thinking and wearing of hairshirts.

"When you have an incumbent president who has launched a bold plan to save the economy," says David Frum, author of Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again, "and it hasn't worked and the economy is worse than ever, the opposition doesn't need any plan at all. There's probably not going to be reform right after the GOP wins. Organizations that are highly successful don't make changes rapidly."

This is not how Frum expected things to go. As the GOP was hitting the reef, he published Comeback. He launched a new Web site, New Majority, the day that Obama was inaugurated. (The site was subsequently renamed FrumForum.) In March 2009, he made a splash with a cover story for Newsweek warning of the damage Rush Limbaugh was doing to the GOP's comeback hopes. "The worse conservatives do," wrote Frum, "the more important Rush becomes as leader of the ardent remnant. The better conservatives succeed, the more we become a broad national governing coalition, the more Rush will be sidelined."

In reality, conservatives succeeded and Rush grew, impossibly, even more prominent and influential.

"In the fall of 2010, nobody needs Comeback and nobody needs Grand New Party," says Frum.

Rush and his listeners couldn't have planned it better. They argued then, and argue now, that people like Frum, Salam, Douthat, Sam Tanenhaus, and others care more about the fabled "Georgetown cocktail circuit" than they care about conservative principles. And they may have a point that a conservative apostate gets more media attention, and more Diet Coke in the green rooms, than a standard-issue true believer.

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