Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Book Review: David Frum's Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again

Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again is the newest book by well-known Canadian author and Washington D.C. political activist and commentator David Frum. The timing of this book's release, in the heat of the presidential primaries, is very clearly intentional.

As the race to replace the current Republican President of the United States pushes ahead, Frum provides a deftly written analysis of what lies at the heart of the current American Conservative malaise.

Frum is part of both the Canadian and American political scenes, as a regular contributor to the National Post in Canada and many U.S. publications, and a skillful blogger at the National Review Online. But his stint as the president's speech writer early in the current Administration did the most to raise his profile, particularly south of the border. His tenure as a Special Assistant in the Bush White House is probably best remembered for the phrase, Axis of Evil, used to describe Iran, Iraq and North Korea. Since leaving his White House post Frum has written from the conservative perspective for a lengthy list of high profile publications, and is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

David Frum’s previous work includes The Right Man: The Surprise Presidency of George W. Bush, his insider account of the Bush White House, and his audacious look at the 1970s entitled How We Got Here: The 70's: The Decade That Brought You Modern Life (For Better or Worse). In his more recent work, An End to Evil: How to Win the War on Terror, Frum and his collaborator Richard Perle authored a bold and contentious conservative approach to defeating terrorism and insuring domestic security for the United States.

With Comeback, Frum seems resigned to a Republican loss in the 2008 presidential campaign. Instead of waiting until after the defeat, he argues, it is now, during the campaign, that American Conservatives should openly debate their ideals and engage the voters. In particular, he thinks Republicans must become players on environmental and health care issues instead of allowing the arguments to be framed by Democrats as problems that can only be solved by government intervention and direction. Frum is also not afraid to criticize his own movement for abusing the public trust during its years of power in Washington.

As much as this book is about refocusing Conservative ideology, it also reads as a game plan for electoral victory. At times Frum sees fault with the Republicans' inability to connect with voters; at other times he suggests they have to state their message a little differently so that voters will actually understand how Republicans are trying to help. With this book, David Frum is sure to solidify his reputation as a savvy conservative strategist.

This short 213-page easy-to-read book distils down to six key goals what must be done for the conservative movement to succeed once again in Middle America. These goals range from the basics, such as a better deal for the middle class and winning the war on terror – which have been the bread and butter of the current administration – to “new” conservative issues such as the environment. He sees the green movement as something that must be brought into the conservative fold. With its emphasis on stewardship and planning for the future, he views it as a natural part of Republicanism, not to mention a key plank in future electoral success.

On the down side, the book in some places seems heavily edited, leaving sections without character. Compared to former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich’s book on much the same topic, Frum chooses to be smart over practical. While Gingrich’s Winning the Future: A 21st Century Contract with America delivers a clear and workable electoral platform, Frum would rather wow you with his wit.

Yet, although Canadians who are not engaged by American political discourse will find little in this book that seems relevant to them, I recommend it for people who have a strong interest in American politics, particularly Republican party politics.

These days it's interesting to see how much Frum has matured as an author and as an analyst, such as in his calm and comfortable recent CBC-TV interview on The Hour with George Stroumboulopoulos. His thoughts and his writings have become much stronger and this book is a well-paced and easy to read primer, from a thoughtful Conservative perspective, on ways that the Republican Party can retool itself for future elections.