Archive for Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Blueprint offered for conservative revival

January 15, 2008


How's this for a change agenda?

Help average-wage workers retire as millionaires.

Bring affordable health care to all.

Push conservation and alternative energy sources through a "carbon tax," with the proceeds going to working-class tax reductions.

More of John Edwards' populist agenda? No. This list is actually among the suggestions offered to revive the conservative movement in David Frum's "Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again."

Frum is the former Bush speechwriter who coined the phrase "axis of evil" and titled the memoir of his White House service "The Right Man: The Surprise Presidency of George W. Bush." Now, in "Comeback," he suggests we offer to talk with axis-member Iran as part of a "whatever it takes" agenda to keep it from getting nukes - he doesn't expect it to accept the offer. And he goes into agonizing detail about the many areas in which Bush hasn't been right.

No, Frum hasn't switched sides, but he does want to update the conservative playbook. He is a foreign policy adviser to Rudy Giuliani, but the book is for any conservative or Republican who wants to address issues from this century, particularly those who want to do more than cry "No!" or "Socialism!" in response to Democratic proposals on issues ranging from education and health care to stem cells, immigration, and the war on terror.

"The great challenge for both parties ... is to address Americans' genuine concerns in ways that meet those concerns but also yield positive results for the U.S. and the world economy," he said in a phone interview during this first week of his book tour.

He is not sure that the GOP can adapt quickly enough, however.

"Organizations don't change until change is forced on them," he said. "I fear that my party may have to go through a defeat or two before we rethink issues."

Should his party decide to try to win this year, Frum has some suggestions. First, accept the progress made in hot-button issues of the 1980s and '90s - tax policy, welfare reform, crime, abortion - and recognize how success was achieved: by hearing Americans' concerns and then offering practical, conservative solutions.

"People need to know that help is on the way," he said.

Among the areas he addresses are health insurance, retirement and the environment.

Here's Frum on the first issue: "The health-care status quo is a nightmare favela of bizarre regulations heaped upon minute controls upon perverse lawsuits upon irrational subsidies." He argues that the public hates the system but is not yet ready to endorse a massive single-payer bureaucracy. But they could sign on if no alternative is offered.

Frum offers common sense: Find the impediments to lower costs (think government mandates), and overcome them. The solution will come not from one quick fix, but from many good ideas over time.

For example: Allow interstate competition among insurers. If the average insurance plan costs $6,000 in New Jersey, and the costs include state-mandated areas of coverage a consumer doesn't want, let her purchase a basic plan for $1,000 from an insurer in a state with fewer mandates.

On retirement, Frum suggests adding $300 annually to the Social Security accounts of low-income workers, guaranteeing $1 million in net worth for many retirees. His slogan - "Every American a millionaire by age 67" - is far more appealing then the gloom and doom peddled in the 2005 attempt to reform Social Security.

On the environment, Frum offers a "carbon tax" on fossil fuels. It would encourage conservation and investment in alternate energy sources, including nuclear, please the stop-global-warming crowd, and reduce the nation's energy dependency on unfriendly regimes. He would use the revenue to offset child-tax benefits and payroll-tax reductions for the working class, who would be hit hardest with a carbon tax.

Frum doesn't see enough urgency about these issues among the current GOP field. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee raises them, Frum says, but his suggestions, including the fair tax, "are unworkable, unintelligent and utterly fantastical."

"If you're running for president, you have an obligation to arrive at workable solutions, not just come up with an exploitive list of problems," Frum said.

Not everyone will agree with Frum's solutions, either, but at least he's done his homework. He also shows that, while there may be reasons for conservatives - and Clintons - to weep this election season, a lack of good ideas isn't one of them.

- Kevin Ferris is commentary page editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer. His e-mail address is <a href=""></a>.


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