David Frum

Listen up, Dave: to care is not to do

David Frum on the lessons the Tories can learn from the original conservative moderniser: George W. Bush, whose progressive policies often just didn’t add up

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David Frum on the lessons the Tories can learn from the original conservative moderniser: George W. Bush, whose progressive policies often just didn’t add up

Political parties typically undergo a four-stage cycle after a major defeat. It goes something like this:

1. We didn’t really lose. (The other guys just happened to luck into an appealing candidate — but the people still really prefer us.)

2. OK, we lost — but only because the voters are idiots.

3. OK, we lost and maybe the voters are not idiots — but there is nothing we can do without betraying our sacred principles.

4. Hey, maybe there is something we can do.

The British Conservative party has reached Stage 4. The US Republican party is stuck in Stage 1.

The Republicans have much to learn from the Conservatives (I detailed some of those lessons in the November issue of Commentary). For the present, however, Republicans are in no mood to absorb any lessons. They are waiting for the public to come to its senses and see through the phony Obama.

Every campaign has a secret slogan, the unique selling proposition it is (often unconsciously) presenting to the voting public. In 2008, Barack Obama’s was: ‘Vote for me and you’ll never have to think about race again.’ John McCain’s was: ‘More wars for a Spanish-speaking America.’ Now in 2009-2010, Republicans are telling the electorate: ‘We will forgive you this time — but don’t do it again.’

Not until the verdict on that campaign message arrives will the Republicans consider the alternatives attempted by British Conservatives. But if we on our side of the Atlantic are as yet unwilling to learn from you on yours, we still have things to teach that it might benefit you to learn.

Our lessons, drawn from the hard experience of the Bush years, apply to governance rather than to politics.

Here are the four perhaps most immediately relevant to the Conservatives as they contemplate a possible return to power.

1. Don’t confuse political formulas with policy solutions.

George W. Bush was the original conservative moderniser. He campaigned for Texas governor on a message of ‘compassionate conservatism’ — and won re-election in 1998 with unusual support among single women, Hispanics and even African Americans. The trouble came when Bush moved from the (constitutionally weak) office of Texas governor to the US presidency. At that point it became inescapably obvious: compassionate conservatism did not constitute anything like a governing philosophy. The pieces simply did not cohere.

Compassionate conservatism wanted both to grant some kind of amnesty to illegal aliens in the United States, and to continue the wage advances gained by African Americans during the Clinton years. Those two policies cancelled each other out.

Compassionate conservatism had promised tax cuts for middle-class wage-earners — and a huge new prescription drug programme in Medicare. Again: mutually assured destruction.

Compassionate conservatism praised the successes of faith-based groups in healing addicts and mentoring young people. It promised to invest large amounts of money enlarging and expanding these projects — without first studying whether these projects could in fact be successfully scaled up. (They couldn’t.)

To name a problem is not to solve it; to care is not to do. Those might seem obvious maxims, but they are not always apprehended by the political mind.

2. Grant your political team a seat at the table — but not the top seat.

George W. Bush fused politics and policy more tightly than any recent president, in the single person of his brilliantly brainy adviser Karl Rove. Michael Barone, the ultra-authoritative political observer, has written: ‘No other presidential appointee has ever had such a strong influence on politics and policy, and none is likely to do so again any time soon.’

Yet policy and politics often point in different directions. Choices must be made. And if your most important policy adviser also has the job of overseeing your re-election effort — well, no prizes for guessing which vector will receive the greater emphasis.

It’s often said that ‘good policy is good politics’. Over the longer term, that is surely true. But political people live by the 24-hour news cycle. They want to be up, up, up today and every day — and they often flinch from decisions whose pay-off time is measured in months or years.

3. Elites matter.

Right-of-centre governments get bad treatment in the press, the academy and the para-government: NGOs, policy professionals, and the like. It’s very human to dismiss the importance of these hanging judges, to try to talk past them to ‘ordinary moms and dads’. Tempting — but dangerous. Elites may be hostile, but they are also powerful. They pay closer attention than the larger public and they care more. They sometimes actually know things worth hearing. Plus, although eggheads are not unanimously beloved, utter disregard for them can be costly too.

Henry Kissinger used to joke that in the Clinton administration, the arguments were always better than the policies — while in the Bush administration it was the other way around. But if you lose the argument in a democratic society, you usually lose the policy too.

4. Don’t disdain small ball.

Small ball is a strategy in baseball. Instead of attempting the big home run, a small ball coach encourages his players to hit singles and move methodically around the bases. President Bush famously preferred Babe Ruth’s style of play: ‘I swing big, with everything I’ve got. I hit big or I miss big.’

Again and again the president swung big: amnesty for illegal aliens, privatisation of Social Security accounts, Medicare reform, a sweeping energy plan, and of course the war in Iraq. Sometimes he hit big: tax cuts, education reform. But more often he struck out. At the end of it all — what enduring conservative accomplishments did the president bequeath? Especially after his tax cuts expire in 2010?

Compare that record to one small technical change forced by conservatives in Congress in 1980: requiring every new federal regulation to pass a cost-benefit analysis test. That one small boring technical change, still in force three decades later, has probably killed more misguided initiatives than all presidential vetoes combined.

Gordon Brown and Tony Blair understood this trick well. Their most left-wing actions were always buried in the fine print. Learn from your opponents’ best moves as well as from your friends’ mistakes!

David Frum is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the editor of NewMajority.com. His book, Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again is published by Doubleday.