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 reporter for Bloomberg Politics

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.

But that's not why the Frums of the world wrung their hands and wrote their manifestos. Yes, they were written with the assumption that the GOP was going to serve more time in detention—and that detention was actually necessary. If the GOP came roaring back by going further to the right, their theory went, that would prove that they didn't understand why they governed so poorly in the first place. They would think that all they needed to do was bang on about tax cuts and the Constitution, and that would not only win the election but make them govern more intelligently.

Of course, to the horror of the smart set, this is exactly what is happening. The conservative base looked at any attempt to answer the Democrats on policy as a cave-in to socialism. When they're making the case for their research, Douthat and Salam acknowledge that reality. But they argue that Republicans have been using their key insights anyway and that the hot rhetoric of the GOP obscures what actually happened.

"I think the way a lot of Republicans are campaigning now—as resolute foes of big government who are also going to save Medicare from the Democrats—suggests that they understand the point of Grand New Party pretty well," says Douthat. They're just taking our insight, that even many conservative voters like the welfare state, and running with it in a cynical rather than a constructive direction."

Salam agrees. "The base of the Republican Party is what we thought it was," he says, "namely whites with economic anxieties. That explains the backlash to Social Security reform and immigration reform under Bush. And the Democrats gave us another opening, because they funded health care reform with Medicare cuts. That's a big validation of Grand New Party's argument."

It's an ingenious argument: We're not wrong. We're just not yet right. After the election, says Frum, after the GOP has recovered in record time, either it's going to have to move away from its campaign rhetoric or it's going to be unable to govern. "What happens in January," Frum says, "when the GOP majority arrives and the Bush tax cuts expire, the U.S. economy has deflationary shock, we don't have a program for pulling the economy out of inflation, and we don't have permission from party supporters or permission from voters to compromise? You have people arriving in office with highly apocalyptic vision of a president but programs they don't know how to execute on their own. It's a formula for crisis."

And crises, of course, often require just the kind of smart thinking that only the smart set can provide. Wherever there's a Tea Party candidate who won by promising to roll back the Progressive Era, there will be the conservative critics they ignored, ready to bail them out.

"The Republicans didn't turn around their own fortunes at all," says Mickey Edwards, a former congressman, now Aspen Institute fellow, who did the lecture circuit for his book Reclaiming Conservatism. "They were bystanders. When I read their new 'Contract from America,' or whatever they're calling it, there's nothing really new there, other than we didn't do a good job last time and need to do better. I don't know what that means." He pauses. "But the first Contract With America was a really dumb thing in the first place."

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