Frum diagnoses his party’s problems

Republicans have begun a period of self-reflection following their election defeat, and a leading voice trying to direct their thoughts comes from former Bush administration speechwriter David Frum.

Most Republicans believe their party fell short on Nov. 6 either because of what Mitt Romney said were President Obama’s “gifts” to selected segments of the population or because Republicans — and Romney in particular — failed to package and sell conservative philosophies properly.

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But for Frum, author of the three-chapter e-book Why Romney Lost, Republicans were defeated because the party stubbornly refused to modernize and has contracted to an increasingly untenable base of elderly, white social conservatives with outdated views and a self-serving approach to domestic policy.

Frum sees the modern Republican Party as being animated by conservatives’ desire to disassociate themselves from Bush, whose legacy was the Iraq war and financial collapse.

This, Frum argues, has led the party to cling dogmatically to the idea that increased government spending, not Republican policy, was to blame for slow economic recovery, and this in turn prompted GOP leaders in Congress to oppose each of Obama’s policy initiatives, from healthcare and student loans to raising the debt ceiling.

Frum says this was particularly dangerous when the country was clawing its way back from the depths of recession. Voters saw Obama suggesting solutions to the country’s economic woes, but rather than proposing conservative alternatives that could have blunted the president’s expansionist efforts, Republicans chose blind opposition.

The GOP also made it easy for Obama and the Democrats to paint it as champions of the wealthy by steadfastly refusing to consider raising taxes or shifting benefits while the young and the middle class bore the brunt of the recession.

Frum details a litany of problems facing the party — a section chronicling outrageous stances given credence by Fox News is particularly noteworthy — but none is given more attention than the “extremism” encapsulated in Romney’s remark in Boca Raton, Fla., about “47 percent” of the population being on the take.

He argues that by systematically buying into the idea that half of Americans are moochers — along with associated conspiracy theories that bounce around in the echo chamber of the conservative media — Republicans have deluded themselves into believing what is not true, and have forced their candidates to do so as well.

Frum chides Republicans for recruiting candidates who express disdain for intellectualism, climate science, gay marriage or abortion rights and finds such positions incompatible with winning votes from the younger generation. He contrasts such an approach with that of Democrats, who, after their losses in the Bush years, ran centrist candidates and shelved their concerns about the environment and some aspects of national-security policy that they disliked.

“To govern is to choose, and we cannot choose everything,” Frum writes. “How will Republicans adapt to preserve what they value most? It’s an urgent question, for adapt we must.”

There is obviously a told-you-so aspect to Frum’s book, but then, he has indeed been making many of these arguments, about the tenor and track of the Republican Party, for two years.

Frum argues Romney was a bad candidate, but this raises a caveat about his case. A stronger field of primary candidates, producing a stronger nominee, could have led to the election of a Republican president on exactly the same platform as Romney’s. It is true, as Frum writes, that the primary process pulled Romney toward positions that made him electorally weak, but it’s not evident that a stronger candidate could not have given President Obama more competition.

Moreover, the Romney campaign’s structural problems — unreliable polling, a bad ground game and a strategy too reliant on pointing out his opponent’s gaffes — have been well-chronicled. Compared to the president’s campaign, which built on a four-year advantage of time, incumbency, money and technology, Romney began the 2012 campaign with a sizable deficit that had nothing to do with his policies.

Frum says many of these problems went unaddressed because of the self-delusion incubated by the modern conservative movement. That’s plausible, but the Obama campaign does deserve credit for a better-executed strategy, independent of the internal workings of the Republican Party.

One wants to hear more from Frum about what his revamped Republican Party would look like. He offers a broad-brush prescription that “the road to renewal begins with this formula: 21st-century conservatism must become economically inclusive, environmentally responsible, culturally modern and intellectually credible.”

But he does not say how that would substantively differ from Obama’s Democratic Party, whose economic, social and foreign policies largely resemble those many centrist Republicans used to profess. Frum mentions reduced spending and smaller government, but what are the “choices” that the GOP should make? One finishes the book wishing for a clearer blueprint for the future.

Still, while Frum might not have fully prescribed a cure — which would have been a tough task, given how soon after the election this e-book was produced — many of the problems he identifies as ailing the Republican Party ring true.


ABOUT THE BOOK:

Why Romney Lost

By David Frum

Available as an e-book via iTunes,Kindle and Nook stores 

$4.99