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Necessary, But Incomplete
on November 9, 2012
Even in the age of digital self-publishing, one might reasonably wonder how David Frum was able to release a book called Why Romney Lost within two days of Governor Romney having done so. Two reasons are immediately evident. First, the book is short. My first read occupied less than two hours, and I wasn't in a particular hurry. This should only be of concern if you consider the $3.99 price tag excessive. I do not, and indeed, I appreciate the tight focus of short pieces such as this.
The second reason is that the explanation promised in the title essentially amounts to, "Romney lost because he was chosen as the leader of an unpopular party." In other words, Frum's book is more a diagnosis of the ills of the GOP than an autopsy of the Romney campaign. Much of its content will be familiar to readers of his blog, columns and essays.
Frum begins by making the case that Obama was vulnerable, but I believe he somewhat overstates it. Most political science models based on fundamentals predicted a narrow Obama win, and exit polling suggests that a majority of voters did not blame the president for economic conditions, accepted the campaign's argument that no one could have fixed the economy fully in four years and were confident that the economy was recovering, however slowly. Obama never surrendered his Electoral College lead in aggregated polling.
That assessment of his vulnerability aside, we're informed that Obama has presided over the largest expansion of government since LBJ, though Frum doesn't speak to the extent to which that expansion has been temporary emergency action in response to the worst economic and financial catastrophe since the Great Depression. Perhaps Frum believes that Obama really does want to run GM. And does the expansion of the national security state and the global war on terror, which Obama did not initiate but has most assuredly perpetuated, count as big government? Or is it only government action intended to save jobs and restore economic growth that needs be limited? We don't know, because Frum doesn't say.
Having swiftly indicted the president for his first term, we then move into the heart of Frum's argument, which, as mentioned previously, has remarkably little to do with Mitt Romney and his merits as a candidate, or lack thereof. There is no discussion of tax returns or Bain Capital, no consideration of whether a more moderate choice for a running mate might have appealed to a broader section of the electorate. All of those things and more may have contributed to Romney's loss, but again, this book really isn't about that.
Frum argues that the Republican Party has become too ideologically extreme - an argument that just about everyone who isn't an ideologically extreme Republican is prepared to accept. Frum devotes much of his attention to social issues: the GOP should accept same-sex marriage and moderate on abortion...or at least stop talking about it. The "crackpot" wing of the party should be consigned to the basement. These "crackpots" seem to be the most radical element of the religious and social conservative faction - the rape philosophers, misogynists, contraception prohibitionists, nativists, birthers and bigots. There is hardly anything here to which one might object. There is also no analysis of whether adopting these needed reforms would allow the GOP to pick up enough minorities, women and social liberals to make up for the loss of the rape philosophers, misogynists, nativists, birthers and bigots. It's left as an unstated assumption, but I'm not sure it's one that would withstand deeper analysis or indeed a real-world test at the polls.
In terms of domestic policy, Frum argues that the GOP needs to offer solutions for income inequality, working- and middle-class wage stagnation, climate change and other 21st century issues confronting the country. He does not suggest what any of these solutions might look like, and that's a disappointing miss in a book like this.
Frum also accepts the need for universal health care, and his criticisms of Obamacare fall mainly on the taxes that pay for it. Frum suggests replacing them with taxes on carbon emissions or consumption.
Despite the absence of concrete proposals, this is all perfectly reasonable, and it leaves one wondering why David Frum isn't a New Democrat. Why all this effort to reform the GOP when there's another party full of people who already agree with him? Frum is probably too far to the left on a whole range of these issues to be considered a Blue Dog, but certainly he'd find a comfortable home in the less conservative, centrist middle of the Democratic Party. This is something Frum's book shares with various "third way" and centrist manifestos, which enthusiastically embrace the Democratic policy program while sniffing disdainfully at the Democratic pols seeking to implement that program by grinding away in the sausage factory on Capitol Hill.
I suspect that in Frum's case there is more to it than that, and the good stuff is hidden in what he doesn't say. Despite Frum's calls for the moderation of the party, George W. Bush's former speechwriter is still a Bushie. Indeed, the clearest statement of Frum's position is that the GOP ought to return to the ideas that were explored in the later Bush years. Frum also states clearly that Bush-era tax rates are a pillar of the Republican Party, though he provides no economic defense of them. For supply-siders, the voodoo is to be believed, not analyzed, evaluated or tested.
On foreign policy, Frum remains a neoconservative - unchanged, apparently, from the thinker who authored the "Axis of Evil" speech. You couldn't divine this from the pages of Why Romney Lost, of course, because Frum has almost nothing to say about foreign policy. We do get some hints early on in the criticism of the Obama administration. A credible conservative party is more important than ever, we are told, because Obama "intends a rapid shrinkage of the U.S. defense budget, even as the Arab spring rapidly freezes into Islamist winter." Even worse, the President "persists in his wrong-headed hopes that acquiescing to Islamist take-overs of the Middle Eastern states will mitigate Islamist anti-Americanism." One could write a book considerably longer than Why Romney Lost just examining these two passages in greater depth.
This, then, is why Frum could never contemplate switching parties. But if he wants to tell Republicans how they should moderate their ideology, a reckoning with neoconservatism, the Iraq War and the whole Bush foreign policy record seems critical, because it remains deeply unpopular with American voters. The absence of this reckoning is conspicuous, but it's clear why Frum doesn't want to go there. Unlike social conservatism, this element of Republican ideology is one that Frum heartily endorses. I'm not the problem - those other guys are. But at some point one suspects that Frum will need to grapple with the fact that, based on surveys and exit polls, the GOP has surrendered the voters' trust on foreign policy issues to Democrats for the first time in decades.
And of course, we will see similar post-mortems from other factions within the Republican Party. We will see analyses from nativist paleocons that are the mirror image of Frum's - no discussion of immigration or other social issues, but a searing indictment of neoconservatism and the taint of Bush-Cheney and the Iraq War. There is no telling which strain will emerge the dominant one, but my money is on the neocons.
Ultimately, Why Romney Lost is a useful summation of Frum's views on what ails the Republican Party. But it also reveals that the author has his own blind spots, that he remains at least partly in the bubble. The GOP needs to reform itself to appeal to a changed America. But David Frum needs to recognize that it isn't just demographics. The experience of the Bush era and Iraq War changed America, too.
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