Can Reform Conservatives Save the GOP From Itself?

The house that David Frum built.

On Monday, political commentator David Frum announced he is taking an extended break from his blog at the Daily Beast to focus his attention on personal matters related to the recent death of his father.

If you’re not already familiar with him, Frum cut his teeth as a speechwriter in the administration of President George W. Bush, where he distinguished himself as a vociferous supporter of the Iraq War (a position he still appears to hold, albeit less vociferously) and gained notoriety for coining the phrase “Axis of Evil”—which Bush used in his 2002 State of the Union address to describe the perceived tripartite threat of Iran, Iraq and North Korea.

Since that time, Frum’s neoconservative leanings have been tempered by a more judicious notion of governance that has rankled former colleagues and, in 2010, got him fired from a position as resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute—a prominent conservative think tank. Freedom from orthodoxy gave Frum room to mature as a political thinker; and over the past two years he has emerged as a leading voice of conservative dissent—challenging the GOP for its attachment to self-defeating extremist positions and paving the way for a movement of “reform conservatives” intent on inching the party back from the brink of obsolescence.

Frum’s writings may have helped fuel the reform movement’s ascendency, but he didn’t spark the fire. Principled conservatives began abandoning the GOP in droves after John McCain’s disastrous decision to tap Sarah Palin for vice president killed whatever shred of hope he had of winning the White House. The mutinous rumblings continued, with Frum at the helm, throughout the frenzied salad days of the Tea Party. But if there is a singular event that gave the reform movement legitimacy it would have to be the publication last year of a book-length analysis by Thomas E. Mann of the Brookings Institution, and Norman J. Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute titled “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks” – which placed blame for gridlock in Washington squarely at the feet of the Republican Party.

“The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics,” the pundits wrote. “It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”

That pronouncement—from two highly respected, avowedly nonpartisan analysts (one from the very think tank that canned Frum two years earlier for apostasy)—gave reformers who may have still been on the fence the imprimatur to openly criticize a party that had placed ideology over good governance.

So who are these people? While columnist Ross Douthat laid out a convincing claim of cohesion—with a primary focus on economic issues—in a recent Op-Ed in the New York Times, “reformocons” continue to defy compartmentalization. They include pro-life Christians who support universal health care, deficit hawks in favor of a woman’s right to choose, and just about everything in between. Many take a conciliatory approach to modern realities (same-sex marriage, for instance), but they are hardly progressives.  Their engagement comes from a solidly conservative framework that values freedom, family and community but eschews reactionary ideology. In other words, they are a lot like the millions of other former party-line voters (both Democrat and Republican) who have rejected blind partisanship in favor of political independence.

If they share one thing in common it’s an entrenched distaste for dogmatic rigidity and anti-intellectualism, and a desire to maximize freedom for growth by limiting the role of government in public life—a position F.A. Hayek described as “liberal” (in the classical sense) rather than conservative.

In a “beta manifesto” published yesterday at, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry—who identifies three main schools of reform conservatism—attempts the enormous task of laying the initial groundwork for the movement. The only way to shrink Big Government, he insists, is to make people less dependent on it by addressing income inequality. Some of his suggestions are good – like reforming the banking industry, reigning in crony capitalism and using tax policy to create a foundation of strong families. Others are not so good – like killing the minimum wage, which would stifle consumer spending and increase income insecurity, and catering too heavily to social conservatives (which would only alienate millions of independent voters who could otherwise vote Republican.)

Yet, in the end, forcing the reform movement into a square or round hole could cause it to unravel.  Some commentators have questioned whether such a loosely defined group of individuals can be defined as a “movement” at all. I say it hardly matters. It is their heterogeneity that makes reformers a force to be reckoned with. In a nation where registered independents outnumber voters in either party, conservatives need to take David Frum’s advice and tackle policy by “starting with the problem and working forward, not starting with the answer and working backward.”  If they resist embracing dogma, reformers on the right could help bring that kind of dialogue back to Washington.  And that’s something that will be good for Americans of all political persuasions.