The Stanford Review: How would you describe the state of the Republican Party?
David Frum: This is a question I really should be asking you. The future of the Republican Party—and more important, the future of economic individualism in America—depends much more upon your generation than it does on mine. Between 1975 and 1990, my generation had experiences that formed us into the most conservative age group in the population. Since 2000, your generation has had experiences that have made you among the most liberal. If that generational political tilt continues, then American politics will veer further and further to the left as your generation takes its place in control of affairs.
But I wonder if it will persist—and if the cohorts after yours will feel the same way. The economic ideas being advanced now in Washington have a long history. Stricter state control, tighter centralization, more redistribution, more taxation, more debt: these are not new ideas. They have been tried before, and they have failed before. They will fail again. I only hope for all our sakes that the process of relearning and rediscovery is not too long and not too costly.
SR: If you had a free hand to reform the GOP, what changes would you make?
DF: [I would make] four [changes]. First, we need a more relevant economic policy, one that focuses more on the causes of stagnation of middle-class incomes: rising healthcare costs, too much debt and too little saving, and the costs of excessive unskilled migration. Second, we need to integrate environmental concerns into the core of our policy and political message. Third, we need to modulate our social message. Fourth, we need a renewed emphasis on competence and effective governance—an emphasis that can only come from success in state and local governance.
SR: In an effort to expand the party, do you think the GOP should make a permanent shift to the center on social policy, or do you simply think that, given the climate, Republican campaigns should focus on economic and good-government themes instead of hot-button cultural issues?
DF: The GOP is and will remain a pro-life party. But does that really have to mean that both the presidential and vice presidential nominees must always be pro-life in perpetuity? This rule prevented the GOP from choosing any of the most logical vice presidential choices in 2008: Tom Ridge, the popular former governor of Pennsylvania, or any of the more experienced female Republican senators. Looking back a little further in history, it ruled out a presidential run in 1996 by either Colin Powell or then California Governor Pete Wilson—either of whom could probably have defeated Bill Clinton that year. Today, the gay rights issue is doing real harm to Republicans among under-30s, among women, and in your state. This idea that black and Latino religious conservatives will come out to vote against same-sex marriage and stay to deliver a pro-Republican vote while they are at it is utterly contradicted by experience. In 2008, they voted both for Prop 8 and for Barack Obama. In 2004, they enacted a constitutional amendment in Ohio—while at the same time Ohio ranked among the 10 states with the smallest increase in Republican vote between 2000 and 2004.
I want to distinguish these issues from immigration, because current immigration policies are so severely implicated in the slow income growth of the bottom half of the income distribution. Until we curtail unskilled immigration, we will see stagnating incomes and rising inequality—both of them very demoralizing to public support of free-market economic policies.
SR: Some Republicans argue that the party needs to return to its core message—an approach you have characterized as “saying the same thing, just louder.” Others, however, argue that the GOP’s problem in ’06 and ’08 was not a flawed message, but a disconnect between its words and deeds, primarily in respect to fiscal policy. How do you respond to that claim?
DF: I think the early Christian father Tertullian once said of some miracle: “I believe it because it is absurd.” I suppose this assertion rests on some similar argument. Seriously: how can anybody suggest anything that so utterly flies in the face of the data? I don’t much like Bush’s prescription drug benefit—but some 90% of Americans do, even after the pollster explains its cost. Republicans lost the 1996 election despite Dole’s promise of a 15% income tax cut. We didn’t do so hot in 2000 either, frankly—losing the popular vote and seeing our majority shrink in the House and disappear in the Senate.
We’ve ignored healthcare, ignored the stagnation of middle-class incomes that has resulted from rising healthcare costs, ignored the environment, [and] ignored inequality. Do people really think we’d have done better if we had ignored them more fixedly?
I know some will point to the unpopularity of the bank bailouts in 2008. I agree the voters did not like them. But had we declined to bail out the banks, and instead crashed into a true financial crisis and depression in the fall of 2008, the voters I promise you would have liked that even less.
SR: Some have argued that “competence” is the GOP’s best-selling, yet currently damaged, brand. What can the GOP do to restore the public’s faith in Republican competence?
DF: Nominate governors who have delivered good results at the state level. Refrain from nominating manifestly unqualified people to national tickets. Quit saying glaringly stupid things on talk radio and Fox News.
SR: Many commentators have focused on the Republican Party’s weaknesses. What would you say are its strengths? Do you have hope for the future?
DF: Its greatest strength? Freedom works. Conservative ideas work. Liberal ideas don’t. I have no doubt that the Republican Party will eventually adopt the kinds of ideas I’ve been advocating in Comeback and at NewMajority.com—and that recovery will follow soon after. The only question is one of timing. How many elections will we insist on losing before we learn our lessons?