David Frum: How the GOP Got Stuck in the Past

Illustration by Mark Weaver. Source Photo: David Goldman / AP (Romney)

Don't tell me it was close. Don't blame it on Hurricane Sandy or Gov. Chris Christie. When eco­nom­ic conditions are as bad as they were in 2012 and the incumbent wins anyway, that's not "close." That's the challenger party throwing away a sure thing.

After-the-fact finger pointing and blame shifting will miss the bigger truth. The Republican Party is becoming increasingly isolated and estranged from modern America. In the quarter century since 1988, there have been six presidential elections. Only once—once!—did the Republican candidate win a majority of the popular vote, and then by the miserable margin of 50.73 percent.

We Republicans may console ourselves that we did win two big victories in the recent past, 1994 and 2010. But those were off-year elections, when 60 percent of America stays home, and those who do turn out are the wealthier, the older, and the whiter. Exit polls indicate that 34 percent of the 2010 electorate was over age 60; in 2012, only 15 percent of voters were older than 65. The Republican success in those elections only underscores the bigger problem: the GOP is rapidly becoming the party of yesterday's America.

The ratification of the Obama agenda will understandably enrage and depress conservatives. Yet if there is any lesson conservatives ought to have learned from the past four years, it is the danger of succumbing to angry emotion. We've had four years of self-defeating rage. Now it's time for cool.

Those who would urge the GOP to double down on ideology post-2012 should ask themselves: would Republicans have done better if we had promised a bigger tax cut for the rich and proposed to push more people off food stamps and Medi­caid? Would we have done better if we had promised to do more to ban abortion and stop same-sex marriage? If we had committed ourselves to fight more wars? To put the country on the gold standard? Almost half of those surveyed on voting day said they wanted to see taxes raised on Americans earning more than $250,000. Exit polls do tend to oversample Democrats, but the tax result is consistent with other polling that has found that even Republicans would prefer to raise taxes on the rich than see cuts in Medicare.

Why Romney Lost by David Frum

Some combative conservatives may wish that Mitt Romney had talked more about the various plots and conspiracies they believed Obama to have launched upon the land: Fast & Furious, ACORN, Pigford, U.N. bike lanes, Obama's imagined plan to abolish the suburbs. But while this kind of angry talk may gain eyeballs on Hannity, it's not the stuff that swings undecided voters in Colorado and ­Virginia—­especially not the women voters who formed 53 percent of the electorate on Tuesday; or the moderates, men and women, who formed 41 percent of it; or the nonreligiously observant, who formed three quarters of it. Only 34 percent of the vote Tuesday was made up of white men. The share of the vote that was made up of older, conservative white men must have been much smaller still. Fox Nation never was more than a very tiny slice of the American nation, and it was only sad self-delusion that ever led anyone to think otherwise.

And deep down, we all know it.

Yet if we know that extremism is dangerous, why do we see so much of it?

Victorious presidential candidates have always spoken to the entire country and promised to represent all Americans. "I ask you to trust that American spirit which knows no ethnic, religious, social, political, regional, or economic boundaries; the spirit that burned with zeal in the hearts of millions of immigrants from every corner of the earth who came here in search of freedom." That's Ronald Reagan, accepting the Republican nomination in 1980. The tragedy of the modern Republican Party is that it remembers Ronald Reagan's lyrics—the specific policies he recommended for the problems of his time—but has lost his music.

At a time when the need to broaden the party's appeal seemed overwhelmingly compelling, Republicans narrowed their appeal to the most ideological fragment of the conservative base.

The Mitt Romney who began seeking the presidency in the early 2000s—the savior of the 2002 Olympics, the author of Romneycare, the man who'd redirected Boston's "Big Dig"—was exactly the candidate the Republican Party needed by 2012: competent, managerial, pragmatic. Unfortunately, in the interval, Romney had been refashioned into something very different—to the point where nobody knew really what he was; to the point where even he may no longer have known.

Half a decade ago, many leading Republicans urged a rethink of their party's direction. After the 2008 election, such calls for rethinking were shelved in favor of the back-to-basics message of the Tea Party. But now, post-2012, it's time to return to the path of reform and rethink what Republicans and conservatives explored in the later Bush years.

The emergency phase of the Great Recession has ended. We are moving into a phase of economic growth, but a growth that will not restore Americans to their prior prosperity for a very long time—let alone bring new progress. What will conservatives say in the months and years of reconstruction ahead? What ideas and what hope can we offer a battered and pessimistic country?

"Your answers are so old I've forgotten the questions." That was the retort from a famous ex-communist to a much younger man who presumed to lecture him about Marxism.

Nostalgia for a misremembered past is no basis for governing a diverse and advancing nation. Eric Thayer / Reuters-Landov

If conservatives are to succeed in the century ahead, they need to rethink what conservatism means in a time as far removed from Ronald Reagan's as Reagan's was from World War II.

In 1980, the U.S. and its core allies produced half the planet's output. As things are going, that group of democracies will do well to produce even one third in the 2020s. Back then, the U.S. was threatened by a great military adversary. In the 21st century, the U.S. faces an economic and technological rival for the first time since 1917.

As the GOP relies more heavily on less- educated voters, it finds itself relying on a class of people who have lost ground economically. Those voters understandably tend to mistrust business.

In 1980, the gap between rich and poor had only just begun to widen from its narrowest point of the whole 20th century. Today, the typical worker earns less than his counterpart of 1980, middle-class incomes are stagnating, and wealth and power have concentrated to a degree that would startle even the Astors and the Vanderbilts.

In 1980, presidential elections were publicly financed, and post-Watergate reforms tightly governed congressional elections. Today, the post-Watergate reforms have collapsed, and presidential elections are increasingly financed by small numbers of extremely wealthy individuals who can bend the political system to their will.

In 1980, middle-class Americans regarded economic progress as the norm, and tough times as the exception. Today, a plurality of non-college-educated whites say they expect their children to be no better off than they are themselves.

In 1980, this was still an overwhelmingly white country. Today, a majority of the population under age 18 traces its origins to Latin America, Africa, or Asia. Back then, America remained a relatively young country, with a median age of exactly 30 years. Today, over-80 is the ­fastest-­growing age cohort, and the median age has surpassed 37.

In 1980, young women had only just recently entered the workforce in large numbers. Today, our leading labor-­market worry is the number of young men who are exiting.

In 1980, marriage remained the norm among heterosexuals and unimaginable for homosexuals. Today, a majority of American women are unmarried, and same-sex marriage is on its way to becoming the law of the land.

In 1980, our top environmental concerns involved risks to the health of individual human beings. Today, after 30 years of progress toward cleaner air and water, we must now worry about the health of the whole planetary climate system.

In 1980, 79 percent of Americans under age 65 were covered by employer-­provided health-insurance plans, a level that had held constant since the mid-1960s. Back then, health-care costs accounted for only about one 10th of the federal budget. Since 1980, private health coverage has shriveled, leaving some 45 million people uninsured. Health care now consumes one quarter of all federal dollars, rapidly rising toward one third—and that's without considering the costs of Obamacare.

These realities do not dictate any particular political choice. But they do shape the menu of choices that will be available to political actors, as well as the range of outcomes that are achievable.

For example: it's certainly possible for Republicans to choose to be a white person's party. If we do so choose, however, we are also choosing to be an old person's party. Since the elderly receive by far the largest portion of government's benefits, an old person's party will be drawn by almost inescapable necessity to become a big-government party. Indeed, that is just what happened in the George W. Bush years: Medicare Part D and all that.

In the Obama years, the GOP rebelled against Bush-era big government. But because it remained an old person's party—more so than ever—the only way to reconcile the voting base and the party's ideology was to adopt Paul Ryan's budget plan, which loaded virtually all the burden of fiscal adjustment onto the young and the poor. And that of course intensified the party's dependence on the old, white voters who set the cycle in motion in the first place.

Another example: the GOP's social conservatism has increasingly repelled college-educated voters. In 1988, college-educated whites voted for George H.W. Bush over Michael Dukakis by a margin of more than 20 points. In 2008, John McCain bested Barack Obama among college-educated whites by only 2 points. As the GOP relies more heavily on less-educated voters, it finds itself relying on a class of people who have lost ground economically. Those voters understandably tend to mistrust business. It's an odd predicament for the party of free enterprise to base itself on the most business-skeptical voters—a predicament that cost Romney dearly in the industrial Midwest.

What do we stand for? For Republicans, the Tea Party was the beginning of that rendezvous. It must not, however, be the finale. It cannot be the finale. The outpouring of anguish and anxiety that characterized the Tea Party should command attention. Yet nostalgia for a misremembered past is no basis for governing a diverse and advancing nation.

The central divide in American politics is the same as the divide in almost every advanced democracy on earth: between one party more committed to private enterprise and another party more supportive of the public sector. These parties may be called Conservative and Labour, Christian Democrat and Social Democrat, Gaullist and Socialist. By comparison with some other democracies—in fact, by comparison with most other democracies—the purely ideological differences between the parties in this country are relatively narrow. Yet the political game is played in this country with a vehemence and recklessness unseen almost anyplace else in the democratic world.

If the parties are to serve the country for which they profess such patriotism, they must step back from the brink.

On the Republican side, the road to renewal begins with this formula: 21st-century conservatism must become economically inclusive, environmentally responsible, culturally modern, and intellectually credible.

I can remember a Republican Party that was not backward-looking. I can remember a Republican Party excited by science and its possibilities. I can remember a Republican Party that regarded those Americans who thought differently not as aliens and enemies, but as fellow citizens who had not yet been convinced of the merit of our ideas.

When I began to pay serious attention to politics, it was the Democratic Party that housed all that seemed most obsolete and reactionary in American politics: urban machines that misgoverned troubled cities; industrial unions that looked to trade protectionism to maintain their advantages, foreign-policy experts who saw the next Vietnam in every challenge to U.S. power, members of Congress who dispensed expensive favors as if nothing had changed since 1965, writers and thinkers still dazzled by the Bright Tomorrow promised by revolutionary socialism.

Where the airports were new, where the businesspeople wore casual clothes, where young people were getting married and buying homes—anyplace the future seemed nearest—there, the party of Reagan was strongest. Where the good old days had ended with the Japanese surrender, where the pay phones were broken, and where aldermen were indicted—there you found the Democratic strongholds.

In those days, it was the Democratic Party that fought internal battles over the need for change: Gary Hart, Les Aspin, and other "Atari Democrats" (as they were called back when Atari was a cool, new brand) vs. Walter Mondale, Tip O'Neill, and other machine pols who sneered back, "Where's the beef?"

Yet in the end, it was the Atari Democrats who won. A century before, a great British conservative, the Marquess of Salisbury, warned, "The commonest error in politics is sticking to the carcass of dead policies." The Democrats of the 1980s and 1990s had the courage and honesty to identify which of their policies had died and then ruthlessly discard the carcasses. It falls to modern conservatives now to heed Salisbury's advice: to abandon what is obsolete—and to meet the challenge of the new.

The work of developing a conservative policy agenda adequate to the 21st century will require months or even years. It must involve many people. Political work is collaborative work, and although we all have our 10-point plans, the immediate need is for a plan with just this one goal: we must emancipate ourselves from prior mistakes and adapt to contemporary realities. To be a patriot is to love your country as it is. Those who seem to despise half of Amer­ica will never be trusted to govern any of it. Those who cherish only the country's past will not be entrusted with its future.

This essay is adapted from Why Romney Lost (And What the GOP Can Do About It), an e-book published by Vook/Newsweek eBooks.