David Frum's Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again (Doubleday, 2008) is "the first fresh thinking from the Right in over a decade," according to his publicist, and has numerous "ground-breaking ideas."
Watch that hype. Most of Frum's specifics are sound but hardly new: For example, Frum is right to assert, "Almost everything wrong with American health care can be traced to the malign effects of perverse government policies" regarding taxes, regulations, spending, and litigation: "The U.S. health care system is not a 'free-market' system and only barely a 'private' system."
He points out that state governments decide what and who must be insured. Must-insure mandates mean that a health insurance policy for a 25-year-old man in high-regulation New Jersey costs nearly six times as much as one in Kentucky. The solution is competition, with consumers allowed to buy insurance for themselves with untaxed dollars.
Such a proposal is eminently rational and nothing new; what gets in its way is the human propensity of voters who are currently insured, although inefficiently, to defend our own interests and not love our neighbors as ourselves. The problem is one of heart and not of brain, yet Frum and others who live in Washington's rarified air of policy planners have a hard time grasping that.
Frum's proposals for federal policies that encourage larger families, fight the public health disaster of obesity, promote nuclear power, and lower taxes on savings and investments (with higher taxes on energy and pollution) are reasonable, but reason by itself won't succeed politically.
He emphasizes brainpower: "Struggling against the overwhelmingly dominant liberalism of the 1950s and 1960s, conservatives won by out-researching, out-thinking, out-arguing, and out-smarting their opponents." That's only partially true: Conservatives gained tiny political victories through argumentation and broke through in 1980 when heartsick pro-life Democrats voted for Ronald Reagan.
Frum argues that the Bush administration went wrong by its tendency to "value thinking less and feeling more." Maybe, but thinking/feeling is not a zero sum game: Our goal should be more thinking and more feeling, not the denigration of feeling.
Joel Hunter's A New Kind of Conservative (Regal, 2008) rightly challenges conventional Christian conservative statements such as "We've Got to Win the Battle Against Secular Humanism." He points out that the statement is factually accurate, "yet the presentation of the fact is all wrong. In an effort to work up intensity, evangelicals turn to the language of war. . . . There is real danger in secular humanistic philosophy, but the evangelicals' appropriate response should be to speak the truth in love."
Hunter also knocks statements such as "We Ought to Go Back to the Good Old Days When Christians Ran Things"-were there good old days?-and "We Can Fix Things If We Elect Christians into Office." He states the need for "mercy and compassion to the aliens in our land." In relation to illegal immigrants, he notes that "Christianity is not mainly a religion of punishment. It's a religion of helping people do what's right after they've done what is wrong."
Can we talk?
Are current political debates too rancorous or too quiet? Maybe both: too much personal vitriol, and too much political correctness that destroys the opportunity for principled debate.
Os Guinness makes The Case for Civility (HarperOne, 2008) with mellifluous prose and rightly contends that one-upsmanship leaves all of us down. But Sen. Jim DeMint and J. David Woodard are also right to make the case for freer speech in Why We Whisper: Restoring Our Right to Say It's Wrong (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008). They show how courts now "limit constructive First Amendment speech while using a perverted view of 'free speech' to support destructive and costly behavior" like prostitution and sex trafficking.