Has Conservatism Cracked Up?

Has Conservatism Cracked Up?

Conservatism That Can Win Again
by David Frum
Doubleday, 2008, 213 pp $24.95

The Conservative Ascendancy:
How the GOP Right Made
Political History
by Donald T. Critchlow
Harvard University Press, 2007, 359 pp $27.95

They Knew They Were Right:
The Rise of the Neocons
by Jacob Heilbrunn
Doubleday, 2008, 320 pp $26

CONSERVATIVES ARE are soul-searching. As they watch the presidency of George W. Bush tank, they are singing like a chorus in a Greek tragedy: This is not our creation, this is a monster, a head cut off from the conservative body spinning out of control. We did not want a bloated budget, a deficit, a disastrous war, an imperial presidency, a crony style of governance. David Frum has joined this litany of dissatisfaction and dissociation. Once a speechwriter to Bush—he coined the famous words “axis of evil”—Frum now shakes his head and performs intellectual acrobatics to explain why the last seven years of Bush’s reign shouldn’t confuse people about what conservatism really is.

We start with a classic statement of declension. “Our conservative movement,” he writes, “had begun as an intellectual movement. . . . Goodbye to all that” now that conservatives flack for the president rather than reassess their own situation and come up with new ideas. Frum wants conservatives to do the impossible: “To vindicate our claim to be the party of the nation, we must make clear that we value public service as much as private wealth creation; that we appreciate the duties of government fully as much as we defend the rights of the marketplace. We cherish our principles, but our first principle is the public good.” When you have to state something like that so explicitly, you’ve pretty much lost the battle. After all, the reason Frum needs to claim he’s on the side of “public service” and the “public good” is because so many conservatives and other citizens have concluded the opposite.

Frum’s act of reinvention and rethinking leads to some bizarre historical revisionism. George W. Bush, whom Frum inexplicably compares to Bill Clinton, ranks as a “middle of the road” president, “far less radical than, say, Ronald Reagan.” But Bush took on Social Security—something Reagan never would have thought of doing. Reagan invaded Grenada to show toughness; he didn’t go into one of the most unstable areas of the world and attempt to create a democracy out of a balkanized society held together through years of brutal dictatorship.

Frum’s rethinking of policy is no better than his historical assessments. Consider his take on tax policy: “To accelerate America’s rate of growth, we should adopt as our Republican goals a capital gains tax rate of zero, an inheritance tax of zero, a dividend tax rate of zero, and a maximum corporate tax rate of zero.” He explains: “Obviousl...