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Can this David slay Republicans' Goliath? Add to ...

The future of the Republican Party, if it has one, is Canadian.

David Frum is emerging as the reasoned alternative to the blinkered prejudices that inform much of the debate within the GOP. His close knowledge of the struggle to reinvent and reunite Canadian conservatism, and his own personal evolution, have led him to call for a renaissance of the Republican Party within the United States, one that combines fiscal probity with social moderation, targeted primarily at young, university-educated voters.

It has made him deeply loathed by some.

"He is not saving conservatism; he is destroying it," commentator Jeffrey Kuhner fumed in The Washington Times last week, describing Mr. Frum and his allies as "deracinated narcissists who live in a policy bubble and are detached from the values and interests of Middle America."

That's how conservatives talk about each other in America these days.

Mr. Frum, 49, is best known as the author of the phrase "axis of evil" - though he claims his version, changed by George W. Bush, was "axis of hate" - which the Canadian-born political analyst and activist coined during his brief stint as a speechwriter for the former president.

More recently, Mr. Frum has emerged as a leading critic of the populist conservatism espoused by radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh and other champions of back-to-basics conservatism. In a recent Newsweek cover story, Mr. Frum described Mr. Limbaugh as an "aggressive and bombastic, cutting and sarcastic" figure, who is happy to accept the mantle of Republican leader that the Democrats seek to bestow upon him.

"But do the rest of us understand what we are doing to ourselves by accepting this leadership?" Mr. Frum asked, reminding his fellow conservatives that Mr. Limbaugh is "a seriously unpopular figure among the voters that conservatives and Republicans need to reach."

A few days later, on NBC's Meet the Press, Mr. Frum defended Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele, who made pro-choice comments in a magazine interview. In typical fashion, Mr. Steele quickly recanted under withering criticism.

Nonetheless, "we need Michael Steele," Mr. Frum explained, in an interview at his comfortable Washington home, where there are many dogs. "The Republican Party is a troubled franchise."

Some Republicans - including, it would appear, the party's Congressional leadership - believe that Barack Obama's ambitious plans to limit the recession and rescue the banks while making huge investments in health care, education and energy infrastructure are doomed to fail, and Republicans need only wait. It is a dangerously passive approach to take, considering the popularity and determination of the Democratic president.

A larger group, the Limbaugh wing, believes the party must return to a strict adherence to market principles coupled to a firm embrace of social conservatism.

But, Mr. Frum observes, that presumes that "there's a huge conservative majority out there, and people will rally to us," when in fact there isn't.

Besides, America is a very different country from the Age of Reagan. More young people have a college degree, for one thing, and in this election, for the first time since exit polling began, more of them voted Democrat than Republican.

A winning Republican coalition will remain anti-abortion, but accept that society is mostly pro-choice. It will oppose gay marriage, but affirm equal benefits for homosexuals. It will propose market-based reforms to fight global warming. It will recognize that the middle class has not benefited from years of unbridled deregulation and tax cuts.

But this is not, Mr. Frum acknowledges, the prevailing attitude within the party.

"I'm not going to make a prediction about how long it will take," he says. "...We're talking about the first shoots of spring. It's very, very early days."

For now, he carries on as a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, promotes and writes for his website, NewMajority.com, and generally seeks to generate buzz.

For some, David Frum will always be the strident neoconservative who championed Unite the Right in Canada, George Bush and the Iraq War.

But Mr. Frum became a critic of how the Iraq war was prosecuted, though he still believes it was worth it in the end. And in its second term, he was increasingly critical of the Bush administration.

When asked if he has moved to the left over the past decade, Mr. Frum pauses for a very long time before answering.

"That's not the way I would put it." Another long pause. "On some of the issues, I have different answers than I would have had a decade ago."

A decade ago, for example, he was strongly socially conservative. But "politics can't impose solutions on society. It has to follow society," he believes. "Society is coming to a consensus on this. The argument I upheld in the 1990s lost, or is in the process of losing. ... Now, how do we make the best of things, with that behind us?"

You make the best of it by moderating your views and seeking to expand the conservative coalition with your eyes fixed firmly on the young, well-educated voter.

"There are voices in the Republican Party who say it's not important to win elections; it's important to stand up for principle," he observes. "After you lose a couple of elections, you begin to understand that it is important to win elections."

The Republican Party will start to win again when it turns off the radio and starts listening to voices like David Frum's. And not before.

jibbitson@globeandmail.com

Follow on Twitter: @JohnIbbitson

 

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