Unlike one reviewer whose opinion is posted here, I have read the book. It is a very interesting critique of the recent drift in conservative thought. As Frum points out, most of the battles from the 1970s have been won. Crime, out of control in 1974 when the movie "Death Wish" got standing ovations in movie theaters, has dropped steadily. Los Angeles has fewer murders than any time since the 1950s. New York is livable (although I'll have to take others word on that. I hate the place.). That problem is solved although Britain seems to be sinking into the same morass now as a result of the same policies that were reversed here by the conservatives in the 1980s. Supply side economics has pretty well replaced Keynesian economics everywhere but the Congressional Democratic caucus. Taxes have been cut until 80% of Americans pay more in payroll taxes (FICA, etc) than income tax. We won the intellectual battles but, as Frum points out, we at once began to enjoy the fruits of victory and forgot that, in politics at least, nothing is ever finally settled. The high point for conservatism was 1994 when the Republicans took Congress on a platform of conservative principles. Everything since has trended down.
Some of his most thought provoking comments pertain to health care, a special interest of mine. He is concerned that the middle class has been getting a raw deal for the past twenty years, partly due to health care costs. I have studied health care both as a physician and as a gradate student in health care economics. I won't get into details but Frum poses serious questions that Republicans will have to answer if they wish to retain power at the federal level. That section alone, is worth the price of the book.
He has serious questions about foreign policy for the next few decades and criticism of some of the Bush Administration's puzzling decisions about the handling of radical Islam. He has a long chapter on what he calls "Green Conservatism" that poses questions about energy policy. The only good suggestion that Al Gore ever made publicly (Some his private suggestions in the Clinton Administration sound far more practical than his dull public persona would suggest.), was the 50 cents per gallon gas tax. Had this been done in 1992, and the revenues devoted to defense, we would be far more secure. A carbon tax is one of Frum's suggestions.
This is a very practical and intellectual book with ideas that should be debated in the Republican Party. I don't agree with all his suggestions; his education and health care ideas need a lot of study, but the first step in solving a problem is to look at it objectively. This book does that well.
on January 11, 2008
This is a very insightful book. Frum captures the ideological problems today on the right and suggests the obvious truth that far too many refuse to listen to. The right needs to develop solutions to todays problems and a political agenda that addresses them from a conservative point of view. For example, everyone knows health care in America and health insurance are broken. Ask anyone who runs a medium-size company. The movement needs to pull its head out of the sand and come up with positive reforms to fix the system rather than allowing the debate be between nationalization and doing nothing. Simple solutions like returning health care to a situation where people pay a real price for health care rather than a phony marked up price designed to force people into the insurance system.
The conservative movement today needs to refresh itself ideologically and to start talking about what its for rather than talking about what its against.
Comments in 2011
Things have moved on since the book was published. While my view of the book is the same, I have nothing favoriable to say about its author anymore. There is a line between supporting conservative solutions to social problems and trying to transform conservatism into Lyndon Johnson style liberalism with social spending run amok at home and wars abroad.
I think the arguments presented in the book are substantially more mild than the thinking behind the arguments have turned out over time to be.
on October 10, 2012
David Frum's best-known work to date is: "The Right Man: The Surprise Presidency of George W. Bush".
Let's state that upfront so we all understand the kind of person we're dealing with here.
Rather than offering a serious look at the causes of conservative decline, Frum trots-out the same banal list of liberal strawmen and Fox News half-truths to explain why Republicans have lost their electoral firepower. I approached "Comeback" with high hopes that the author would speak hard truths to a party which has so clearly lost its way. Instead, Frum is merely your garden variety political opportunist: content to support the disastrous presidency of George W. Bush at the time, then don the mantle of a disillusioned supporter when it later proves convenient to do so.
Nothing in "Comeback" offers a serious diagnosis for Republicans today. We must wait for more-capable writers to lead the party out of the political wilderness.
Both the Republican and Democrat national parties are built on the "big tent" theory: that they are to incorporate all the divergent views of their respective constituencies into a single party, rather than have dozens of splinter parties as in Europe and elsewhere.
The result has been a remarkably stable system of government. The serious student of politics knwos that within the larger party, there is always a dominant faction and that this dominant faction changes from time to time.
For about thirty years, genuine conservatives dominated the Republican Party. With them came the West's victory over the Soviet Union, the freeing of Eastern Europe without bloodshed, forcing welfare and budget reform on the nation and other victories, large and small, including the historic 1994 election victory. Perhaps because of its very success, the Republican Party lost its way and genuine conservatives were shouldered aside.
Now comes David Frum, a Canadian, with his thoughts on how Conservatism can win again.
It is indeed a thought provoking book, but not one that will be adopted as a Conservative bible.
Frum's basic thesis is that conservatives have lost their way, that too many of them have lost touch with the changing public and its views. He is right in his perceptions, but his prescriptions may not be acceptable to real conservatives.
For example, Frum goes on at length about how his proposal for a new way of viewing the abortion issue. I have a better idea, I think: ignore. Just say that the government has no business getting involved with the question at all and take the Republican Party out of a can't win situation.
Frum's suggestions on trying to get people to understand that terrorism is a real problem, on the other hand, are sound as are his suggestions for true reform of public education.
To his credit, Frum doesn't declare that his ideas are the only ideas. They are suggestions to get the debate rolling - and his book is laudable for that. It is, in fact, excellent and thought provoking reading.
One thing Frum can't do in this book, however, is to reconnect conservatives to the leadership of the Republican Party, which truly seems to have lost its way.
on August 16, 2010
I want to start by saying that Frum is very intelligent, and I'm a fan. Though I don't agree with most of the GOP's positions, I read FrumForum everyday and I'm always very impressed when I see Frum on TV. I read Frum's New York times magazine piece--The Vanishing Republican Voter--which addresses some of the same issues as Comeback, and loved it. I had hopped Comeback would be of similar quality, but I was mistaken. This book falls far short of my expectations.
Most of his ideas are good in principle. Yes we need to reform healthcare. Yes we need to do something about global warming. Yes the middle class hasn't been doing well for the past 30 years and Conservatives need to admit it and try to do something about it. Etc. But the irony is, post-Comeback, a lot of the issues Frum addresses are things Democrats would be more than happy to do (or have done).
Healthcare: Well, the healthcare reform that just passed Congress looks a lot like Romney's program in Massachusetts (a program Frum addresses positively, though briefly, in his book). It's for the most part market oriented. I know Frum doesn't like the healthcare reform, but it's not clear after reading the book why one should be against such a reform.
Global warming: Clearly a Democratic issue. Frum wants a tax on carbon. Liberal Democrats want that too! But Congress's political middle and right don't. I know Democrats were pushing Cap-and-Trade, but that was supposed to be the compromise. And the reason why the compromise didn't make it was because moderate Republicans walked away.
Helping the middle class: Well, the Democrat's healthcare reform goes a long way. It looks like the GOP will only go along with extending the lower and middle class tax cuts if the rich get their taxes extended too. What's more, Paul Rayan's plan actually increases taxes on the poor and middle class, and lowers them for the rich. And Paul Rayan is very much a respected member of the GOP. Which party is Frum supporting again?
I know this isn't so much a direct criticism of Frum's book. But what I'm doing is pointing out that these issues are being addressed, and to a very real extent Conservatism has defined itself by its opposition to these sorts of issues. So I can interpret Frum's book as tacitly advocating the dismantling of Conservatism, and replacing it with another Democratic party. Obviously this interpretation makes Frum's book look silly.
Another problem I have with the book is that it's not just about advice for the GOP. A lot of it is simply old fashion anti-Democrat statements. Frum gives a few examples of things Democrats do which, he feels, help the rich and unionized labor at the expense of the middle. I didn't find his points very convincing, which is reasonable because he just interjects them and then moves on. So there's not much hope that his comments will convince anyone, unless you already agree that Democrats are awful. It kind of seemed like the point of the comments was just to tell Conservatives "hey really--I'm one of you guys."
Outside of the Democrat hating and policy recommendations, there's not very much else in Comeback. The book is only 180 pages long. I think he would have done his readers a great service if he would have went into more detail regarding why his policy proposals will make America better. Generally, he goes into the Bush-era history of the policies he recommends, gives some examples, and addresses the politics. If he wants to convince anyone that disagrees, he needs to dig deeper and explain the mechanics of his recommendations. In this case, if you wanted those details, you'd have to go to other books, which is a huge disservice to Frum's target audience because most of those books are written by Liberals.
(If you read this David Frum, know that I love you and I really wanted to like the book, but alas I can't do that.)
on August 21, 2011
I settled on this book after reading an essay of Frum's in the NYT magazine a couple of weeks ago. Unfortunately, my frustration at his poor research and data almost overwhelmed any good points he might have been making. His claims about immigrants decreasing the wages of "non" immigrants have been shown to be inaccurate (at best) and outright wrong at worst. The research he sites about children needing a mom and a dad has also been debunked. Books like this, regardless of whether they are written by conservatives or liberals (Chris Hutchinson's book qualifies as well) are almost a waste of time because their agenda overrides any need to actually use good research to back up their claims.
A couple of things that did stand out--Frum calls for a Carbon tax offset by an increase in the child tax credit that seems to make economic sense; it encourages the development of green energy (without the government subsidizing pork barrel issues like corn in Iowa) while also not being punitive to the poor. Frum also basically declares the war on choice dead--he argues that we've reached an equilibrium where pro-live advocates have achieved many of their goals and pro-choice have maintained many of theirs while still respecting state's rights. (At least, I think that's what he's saying).
It's at least somewhat gratifying to note that Frum is ready and willing to admit he was wrong when he championed Bush's presidency and to acknowledge that a harkening back to Reagon economics at this point in time is not going to win any republicans any votes (He states that despite repeated loud and vociferous cries from republican voters that they do not want anymore tax cuts, Republicans keep beating this dead horse).
Many of his claims are not backed up (despite a deep section of footnotes. It seems that some of his claims he must take for granted and thus doesn't feel the need to demonstrate where the claims are supported--this was deeply problematic. I couldn't even go check out the source which makes it difficult to evaluate the data)
Frum believes American cannot revert to Reaganism because our problems are different now, and then proceeds to do exactly that. While he also realizes that Republicans must offer the middle-class a better deal, he proceeds to support policies that have failed or repeatedly been rejected.
Frum correctly points out that Democrats' have consistently pushed more spending for education - a policy that has failed. However, Frum's recommendation - charter schools, have not proven effective either. American spending on both public education and health care (covered next) approximately double that of other nations - reaching wasteful levels that undermine our economy. What is needed is an approach that both encourages greater parental and pupil involvement, and less spending as well.
Frum also prescribes increased competition within health care. However, current competition within health care creates major INCREASES in administrative costs via higher marketing, rate-setting, contract negotiation, new enrollee evaluation (pre-existing conditions), etc. Moreover, enrollee turnover largely erases value from prevention efforts such as smoking cessation and obesity prevention.
Frum then claims higher U.S. drug prices create incentives for drug development in the U.S. - forgetting that most drug development monies come from government, and that both drug research and production are now moving to lower-cost Asia. He also asserts that competition between (confusing) Medicare drug-plans have reduced costs, and somehow forgets the enormous savings foregone via prohibition of government negotiating drug prices.
Frum correctly points out that Americans should assume greater responsibility for their health (and education), but offers no mechanism for encouraging this. More importantly, he ignores the wide regional variations in medical care with no corresponding impact on health - a MAJOR opportunity to both improve outcomes and reduce costs.
Moving to pensions, Frum predictably supports privatizing Social Security - hardly an attractive option when the market has just fallen nearly 50%, and the risks associated with often expensive investment options are only partially understood by investment bankers themselves.
Frum hits his nadir on economic issues - beginning by attacking the political viability of a regressive flat tax, and then proposing a minor variation of such. He complains about Sarbanes-Oxley making American stock markets less attractive than foreign ones (laughable in comparison to the current subprime mortgage debacle, and our only too recent plethora of 2001-era accounting fraud), proposes lower tariffs (and even greater outsourcing of American jobs), and reducing illegal immigration (absolutely). Finally, he infers that improving pupil achievement (desirable in itself) will have a substantial impact on the trade deficit (vs. Chinese workers earning $100/month laboring 13 hours/day for six or more days/week (plus all the noodles they can eat and free 12/room quarters).
Bottom Line: Republicans will not improve their attractiveness unless they improve the effectiveness of their recommendations, and that will not happen until they become much better informed and less loaded with philosophical baggage.
on January 8, 2008
David Frum refuses to be conned by the hypocrisy of many American voters. He is well aware that they often speak out of both sides of their mouth. They may initially demand cuts in the budget, but soon afterwards they will compel their elected officials to provide them with larger entitlement programs. May God help the libertarian conservative who fails to realize this harsh reality. The author is probably right to point out that George W. Bush would not have been reelected in 2004 if he had not advocated the prescription drug benefit to Medicare. Republicans also blew a golden opportunity to change the Washington, DC landscape because of pure greed. A large number of them forgot why they ostensibly moved to our nation's capitol. Instead, they opted to become well paid lobbyists and therefore compromised their original mission.
The leftist community has long race carded the illegal immigration issue. An objective and dispassionate discussion is often near impossible. The same holds true for affirmative action policies, which inadvertent discourage blacks from working hard in school. Why not avoid the difficult tasks if you know your selection to a good university is a sure thing? Perhaps the most important chapter in the book is the one entitled "Goal Five: Win the War on Terror." Frum does not hesitate in being blunt: "For decades, American have urged the Europeans and Japanese to spend more money on their own defense. The next Republican president should accept that it will be very difficult for them to do this. As far and away the riches and youngest member of the Western alliance, the United States will have to shoulder a rising share of the burden." You may not be interested in war, Leon Trotsky reportedly asserted, but war is interested in you. Isolationism regrettably is not a viable option. Americans cannot afford to continue taking a vacation from history. Mr. Frum has written a book that you must read. It is also imperative that you do so as quickly as possible. Crucial elections will be held in November. We cannot afford to procrastinate. Time may not be on our side.
on August 31, 2009
Having written a book called The Right Man about President George W. Bush, Frum has to somehow point out the mistakes of his old boss without coming across like a jerk. Frum manages the trick nicely, in part because one senses that he is a genuinely nice person who sincerely believes that conservative policies will advance the peace and prosperity of the nation. As other reviews might note, he is not a doctrinaire ideologue, at least not one designed for the righter wing of the conservative movement, but he is thoughtful, articulate and well informed.
Frum eschews the typical road to political best seller land and does not engage in partisan body slams of his opponents. He offers forceful arguments, supported by demographic and polling data, that indicate a future for conservatism. It isn't a fun read but it isn't laborious either, with clear prose and well honed arguments.
on May 5, 2009
I've become quite a fan of Frum from his well reasoned commentaries on Marketplace, so I thought I'd give his book a listen.
While it's now clear to me that the author and I have many differing opinions, he has done a nice job challenging Americans to come up with better solutions to many of the problems with which we've thus far dealt unsuccessfully. His book also helps non conservatives get a better understanding of the conservative agenda.
In the end I found the author a little too trigger-happy, a little too naive that the theory marriage begets well adjusted children is causation and not simply correlation, and a little too hypocritical that the American family should be strengthened but should not include homosexuals. But even as a non conservative I value several of his other ideas.