Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again by David Frum (Doubleday, $29.95, 224 pages)
David Frum, the Canadian speechwriter to George Bush during his first term, gained international notoriety as the originator of the phrase, “Axis of Evil.” Prior to that, he was known primarily as a journalist and writer, in particular of the thoughtful Dead Right and How We Got Here. In his latest book, Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again, Frum addresses six themes, each containing specific policy recommendations that he considers crucial to the Republican party’s future electoral success.
Frum is a prominent neo-conservative and devotes a chapter to the War on Terror, stressing throughout the importance of American military and economic strength. Perceived today chiefly as a foreign policy doctrine, neo-conservatism was originally concerned with domestic issues, in particular the misery and family breakdown that increased throughout the second half of the 20th century. Early neo-cons like Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Charles Murray pointed out how closely divorce and skyrocketing illegitimacy correlated with crime, chronic unemployment and poor educational outcomes. Bill Clinton’s welfare reforms, which sharply reduced child poverty, are often seen as the fruit of their work, among others.
It is strange, then, that the family plays such a small role in Comeback and usually appears as an economic actor only. Much of Frum’s chapter concerned with a better deal for the middle class chronicles the increasing tax burden borne by American families that are getting by, but not prospering. He points out quite fairly that cutting income tax is less helpful to such households than lowering payroll taxes. The increasing chunk of earnings going to healthcare, both from earners directly and from their employers, also means that real income has stagnated for the middle class.
While Frum zeroes in on the financial situation of the middle-class family, he neglects the other side of the equation: family breakdown is the biggest threat to the financial stability of the middle class. He mentions the higher poverty rates faced by never-married and divorced parents, but doesn’t connect this reality to the Republican party and its obligations to families. One of the biggest factors in the meteoric, albeit short-lived, success of Mike Huckabee in the Republican primaries was his understanding of the link between family stability and financial stability. A divorce is a bigger threat to the well-being of parents and children, and a more common one, than outsourcing or foreclosure on a sub-prime mortgage, and Huckabee’s speeches and debate remarks resonated with many because he’s aware of this. Comeback shows no such awareness.
Although opposed to partial-birth abortion, Roe v Wade and human cloning, Frum does not consider himself pro-life. His treatment of abortion centres on the contention that the pro-life movement has achieved as much as it ever will. Abortions in the U.S. have dropped to 1.3 million per year and no abortions at all are committed in 87 per cent of American counties, two statistics he cites as proof that pro-life voters and politicians have largely accomplished their mission. Frum seems unimpressed that 1.3 million abortions strikes some as an appallingly high number and that counties lacking abortuaries are usually rural and in close proximity to cities that have them.
His reading of the political will of the American public also rings false. In 2006, South Dakota legislators passed a (symbolic) law prohibiting abortion for any reason except to save the life of the mother, with no exemption for pregnancies caused by rape. Because this law was repealed at the ballot box, Frum adduces a broad American reluctance to outlaw abortion, when in fact the critical issue for voters was the lack of a rape exemption. Since roughly 1 per cent of abortions in the U.S. are the result of rape or incest, and most polling shows that over 60 per cent of Americans believe abortion ought to be more restricted than it is today, it seems premature to pronounce abortion a settled issue.
Frum suggests that the future for pro-lifers ought to look like the temperance movement post-Prohibition. By this, he means that efforts to stop abortion should focus more on education, raising awareness of risks and persuasion, rather than using “coercion.” He is right to point out that changing the culture is key and to note that increasing awareness of how early a fetus looks human and becomes viable has made abortion distasteful to many. Given rates of alcoholism and the near-universal acceptance of social drinking by Americans, though, those who take the protection of the unborn seriously will not find his suggestion to emulate temperance advocates heartening.
While Comeback takes an almost cavalier attitude towards abortion, Frum comes out strongly against embryo-destructive research. His policy prescription to end it misses the mark: if the sale of fertilized embryos were made illegal, on the unimpeachable principle that human life must not be commodified, he claims, “the incentive for research will disappear.” Given that the embryos used in research are typically the donated by-products of fertility treatments, the issue is not really the sale of embryos but rather, their deliberate destruction.
Most fundamentally, though, in suggesting a shift in priorities from abortion to embryonic research, Frum falsely sets up pro-life politics as zero sum: if we oppose abortion, we fail to oppose destructive stem cell research. The tendency of most pro-lifers is to view all innocent life as deserving of protection and the defence of one category of humans as enhancing the dignity and security of all. A political conservatism, or Republican party, that cannot muster the political energy to protect a viable fetus is unlikely to accomplish much in defense of an eight-cell zygote.
Frum presents an interesting take on same-sex “marriage” and how it correlates with public attitudes to marriage in general. He cites research showing that in countries that have same-sex “marriage,” poll respondents are much less likely to agree that marriage has benefits for spouses, children or society in general. Acceptance of same-sex “marriage,” therefore, has less to do with a desire that homosexuals marry than it does with a general loss of faith in the institution in general; if marriage doesn’t matter, why not extend it beyond its traditional definition? Politicians and activists who oppose same-sex “marriage,” then, must not define themselves by that opposition, but rather by what they favour. Without suggesting a specific policy (beyond stating that a national marriage amendment is politically unfeasible) he urges that Republicans emphasize the value and importance of traditional marriage and the problems with “the multiplication of quasi-marital statuses.” This is solid advice and a position that is characterized as keeping families strong, rather than denying marriage to gays, is likely to achieve much more politically and culturally.
Comeback reads like a patchwork of policy recommendations aimed at Republicans and conservatives who fear for their political futures. An odd myopia about the link between conservatism, American politics and the family keeps Frum from describing a more organic, cohesive political philosophy. He points at several junctures to statistics linking lasting marriages with all manner of desirable outcomes, but doesn’t see how families are the thread that ought to bind his pieces together. His call for better schools makes reference to the problems caused by teachers’ unions, and the dumbing down of curricula compared with other countries, but omits the single strongest indicator of academic success for children: a father in the home. He recognizes that immigration is a problematic issue for America, and advocates a tax credit for children to boost birth rates, thus reducing the need for immigrants, but doesn’t see a connection between the children Americans aren’t having and the 1.3 million pregnancies terminated each year.
Comeback makes some valuable points and has already generated much discussion within the Republican party and conservative movement about their prospects for the future and how to better them. Its most valuable function, though, may be as a book-length demonstration of how hard it is to turn the fashionable politics described as “socially liberal, fiscally conservative” into a coherent and workable platform. By seeing the health of families as a product of good policy, rather than a crucial ingredient, Frum obscures one of the key strengths of conservatism: that it recognizes families as the fundamental unit of a functioning society and accordingly values and defends them.
Rebecca Walberg is a social policy analyst at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy and a contributor to ProWomanProLife.org.