As the voting begins in earnest, what are we to make of the Republican candidates? That the “conservative base” is dissatisfied with the GOP field is probably the single most common observation of this presidential campaign season. The second most common observation is probably that the Republican candidate, whoever it turns out to be, is doomed to defeat. National Review ran a recent cover story positing not only that the GOP is likely to lose the presidency in 2008, but that the loss may mark the beginning of a long period of wandering in the wilderness as the party gropes to redefine itself after George W. Bush’s calamitous tenure. Ramesh Ponnuru and Richard Lowry write:
Conservatives tend to blame their travails on Republican politicians’ missteps and especially on their inability to communicate. But the public’s unhappiness with Republicans goes much deeper than any such explanation. A mishandled war, coupled with intellectual exhaustion on the domestic front, has soured the public on them. It is not just the politicians but conservative voters themselves who are out of touch with the public, stuck in the glory days of the 1980s and not thinking nearly enough about how to make their principles relevant to the concerns of today. Unforeseen events could yet change the political environment radically. As it stands, Republicans are sleep-walking into catastrophe.
What would be a rational Republican response to this grim state of affairs? Given both the apparent ideological heterogeneity of the candidates and the soul-searching taking place even in the pages of National Review about how badly conservatism has failed the country, one might think that the GOP in 2008 would disclaim at least some of its current radical conservative positions and inch back toward the political center.
David Frum, the conservative analyst who formerly wrote speeches for Bush, proposes something along these lines (although he prefers calling it conservatism updated for the twenty-first century rather than centrism) in Comeback. To help the GOP recover from its present shabby state, for example, Frum preaches a “Green Conservatism” in which the GOP fights the Democrats for the allegiance of environmentally minded voters, going so far as to endorse a carbon tax. He also advocates a conservatism for the middle class that actually wants to do something about the problem of uninsured middle-class Americans. He even calls for a conservatism that respects the rights of prisoners, including “conjugal visits” and “enjoyable food.” He combines these with newfangled defenses of traditional conservative positions—for example, a softer opposition to abortion that emphasizes “education and persuasion rather than coercion, changes in attitudes and beliefs rather than changes in law and public policy.” More than once while reading Comeback, I nodded, thinking that the GOP could do worse than to listen to him. In urging a new course, he joins other conservative writers like Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, who argued in The Weekly Standard in 2005 for a “Sam’s Club Conservatism” that makes economic appeals to working-class voters …