He's a neo-con the most strident Republicans love to hate. And after his departure last week from right-wing think tank the American Enterprise Institute, Canadian-born pundit David Frum is making no apologies for taking the Republican Party to task for its handling of the health-care reform bill signed by President Barack Obama. The former George W. Bush speechwriter spoke with The Globe and Mail from Washington about the future of the GOP and how it failed to make the health-care reform bill work in its favour.
So the Republicans couldn't block the health-care reform bill, despite all the anger and public outrage. Where do you think this places the party?
I hope Republicans will do well in the elections of 2010, and I hope they'll do well in the presidential elections of 2012. I think if Republicans want to be a more effective party, they have to be driven much more by their head and less by their gut.
Who's best poised to do that?
A lot of people who are going to do well are reflecting the kinds of views I'm expressing here. It looks like what was Barack Obama's seat [in Illinois] might be filled by a Republican named Mark Kirk. He is very much a realistic, pragmatic kind of Republican. Barbara Boxer in California may go down to defeat. The likeliest person to defeat her is a Republican named Tom Campbell, a Stanford graduate, University of Chicago graduate, a very serious, substantive intellect. So, it doesn't have to be Glenn Beck's and Sarah Palin's party. It can be Mark Kirk and Tom Campbell's party.
Why would they get your support?
They're interested in government, not just politics. The point of government is to win permission from the people to govern. And I think that is the thing we really need most, is a Republican Party that wants to govern in a conservative way. I think that is a stage the Canadian conservatives have arrived at [as have]British conservatives and that's where Americans need to go.
You're arguing that Republicans severely fumbled the ball when it came to this health-care bill. How did they let that happen?
In every Congress, there are things the president wants and the opposition fights tooth and nail, and there are things the president wants that the opposition party cuts a deal on. For example, in the Bush administration, president Bush's first two big initiatives, the tax cuts and No Child Left Behind, both got lots of Democratic votes. They cut a deal, they got things in it that they wanted and they said, 'Okay, this is good, but we'll fight you on other things.' So the Republicans made a decision to fight health care to the end. But if you do that, you'd better win.
And they didn't. Why do you think the health-care bill could have been compromised?
Because the core elements of the bill that emerged from the Congress are based on famously Republican ideas. The plan is very similar in its mechanics to Mitt Romney's plan [when he was governor of Massachusetts]and that, in turn, is very similar to the mechanics of, back in 1993-1994, [the Republican response to]Clinton care. The Republicans actually produced a fairly sophisticated alternative to the Clinton plan.
Would you have voted for this bill?
There are a lot of things in the bill that Republicans and conservatives strongly dislike. Had I been a member of Congress, I would have voted 'no' on the final bill, I want to be clear about that. But there was clearly a decision made to put the politics of this first, to use this to inflict political defeat on the President.
There's been a lot of talk about how this health-care reform bill is just not sustainable. Do you think that same debate could be sparked in Canada as governments try to rein in costs?
The health-care status quo is for sure not sustainable. The United States is now spending 17 per cent of its GDP [on health care]and Canada spends about 10. The average in most developed countries is about 10 1/2 and the runner-up in Switzerland spends about 11. If the United States spent as much on health care as Switzerland does per person, relative to the economy, you would liberate six points of GDP. You would get your entire defence budget for free and have two points of GDP left over to pay down your debt.
Can we make any comparisons to Canada?
The Canadian system has, in many ways, opposite problems. There's far too much command and control and not enough competition.
So set the record straight about your job - what happened last week that led to your departure from the American Enterprise Institute?
I wrote something for [my]CNN [column]on 'What do we do now? What's the way forward?' Monday morning, The Wall Street Journal ran a lead editorial criticizing me by name quite harshly. Mid-morning, about 11:45 a.m. [ET] that day, I got a call from the head of AEI asking me, 'Could we have lunch soon?' We had lunch on Thursday and he didn't exactly terminate me; I was welcome to remain affiliated with the institution, but with no salary and without my office. I said under those circumstances he could have my resignation.